what is oral history?
Oral history is a method of gathering information. It is a recorded interview with someone who speaks from personal experience about the past.
In an oral history interview we record not only what happened in the past, but what the person being recorded remembers thinking and feeling at the time. Often the things that people do every day are not written down, even in diaries and letters, but in an interview we can ask about how the world looked and sounded and smelt, or what it felt like to wear a corset.
We can ask people what their impressions were of their parents and grandparents, and whether they spoke with an accent or used unusual language. We can find out what the usual meals were, or what the house where they grew up looked like.
We can also ask people about their working life and why they entered the professions they did.
Everybody thinks at one time in their lives, ‘I wish I’d asked Mum about that.’ An oral historian will ask your Mum those questions.
There are two main types of oral history interview:
- life history interviews – an interview that focuses on the life and the changes experienced by the person being interviewed
- topic-based interviews – an interview recording information about a specific subject, such as an interview with someone about the history of a workplace or occupation.
Each type of interview requires different questions and different preparation. Research is an important part of the interview process. It means that the interviewer has some understanding of the topics that will be covered in the interview, and can ask useful questions, and follow up on information given in the answers.
The interviewer will always have a preliminary meeting with the person being interviewed. At that meeting we collect biographical information, talk about the topics that will be covered in the interview, and explain what is involved, i.e. that the interview will be recorded and how long it is likely to take. It also gives us a chance to get to know each other.
Abstracts and transcripts
An abstract is detailed summary of the interview, with a record of where in the interview the information can be found. A transcript is a written verbatim copy of what is in the recording.
The purpose of an abstract is to give the user an idea of what is in the interview without providing detail of what the interviewee says. If someone wants to use the information, she or he must listen to the interview. To prepare an abstract will take us about two hours for every hour which has been recorded.
Transcribing is very time-consuming. A transcript takes about six or seven hours' work for each hour that has been recorded. Transcripts are therefore more expensive to prepare.