For information on interviewing war veterans, see the From Memory section
Oral history is a method of gathering information. It is the sound or video recording of an interview with someone who speaks from personal experience about a subject of historical interest.
It can also be the printed version of the material that has been recorded, whether a verbatim transcript or one that has been edited for publication.
One of the values of oral history is that it adds the view of eyewitnesses to existing records, providing new or additional information and insights. It is not about repeating what has already been written and recorded about the past. Instead it gives us the personal perceptions of individuals who were there, so we can learn not only what happened to people in the past but also the thoughts and feelings they recall having at that time.
Oral history can also give a voice to people who are often left out of historical records, the ordinary men and women who have taken part in significant events and whose reflections may throw new light on the past.
There are two main types of oral history interview:
- life history interviews – for example, an interview that focuses on the life and the changes experienced by a long-term resident in your area
- topic interviews – those recording information about a specific subject, such as an interview with someone about the history of a workplace or occupation.
For example, war oral history is a topic interview, but it should include some questions about the interviewee's pre-war life to provide a context for their later experiences.
Each type of interview requires different questions and different preparation. We have provided some suggested questions for a life history interview (pdf, 74k).
The recording and use of oral history may give rise to ethical considerations. The National Oral History Association of New Zealand (NOHANZ) has published a Code of Ethical and Technical Practice that sets out the responsibilities of interviewers and collectors of oral history.
The section on interviewers' responsibilities is particularly important and is reproduced here.
Interviewers have the following responsibilities:
- to inform the person interviewed of the purposes and procedures of oral history in general and of the particular project in which they are involved
- to inform the person interviewed of issues such as copyright, ownership, privacy legislation, and how the material and accompanying material may be used
- to develop sufficient skills and knowledge in interviewing and equipment operation, e.g., through reading and training, to ensure a result of the highest possible standard
- to use equipment that will produce recordings of the highest possible standard
- to encourage informative dialogue based on thorough research
- to conduct interviews with integrity
- to conduct interviews with an awareness of cultural or individual sensibilities
- to treat every interview as a confidential conversation, the contents of which are available only as determined by written or recorded agreement with the person interviewed
- to place each recording and all accompanying material in an archive to be available for research, subject to any conditions placed on it by the person interviewed
- to inform the person interviewed of where the material will be held
- to respect all agreements made with the person interviewed.