A Primer in Oral History Methodology

Because my department does not offer a regular course or training in oral history, I had to teach myself how, exactly, one goes about interviewing people about their pasts.  When I interned at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in 2012, I had the good fortune to observe another intern as she worked on an oral history project for an upcoming exhibit. She was also a graduate student, but in a program specializing in public history. As part of her training, she took a course that discussed the ethics and best practices of oral history as well as the practicalities of interviewing. From our discussions, I learned that it was not as simple as sitting down with someone, turning on a tape recorder, and asking them questions. 

Three years later, as I began to prepare for my own project, I recalled this colleague and her giant  textbook on oral history. I turned to the internet to find my own guide, and after reading several reviews settled upon Donald A. Ritchie's Doing Oral History. I liked that it combined a theoretical discussion of the practice with a step-by-step guide to setting up a new project. While there are many brilliant texts out there that delve into the ethics of representation, the power dynamics inherent in the interview process, and the problems of memory, I felt that for my small, limited project I only needed a summary of these major debates.

I found the second and third chapters of Doing Oral History to be most useful for preparing well-structured interviews questions. Ritchie stresses that interviews should elicit remembrances relevant beyond the scope of a narrow project so that other historians may find them useful, and so I have taken great care to ask each interviewee a few questions about parts their lives unrelated to the events I am studying. Even more importantly, Ritchie emphasizes that questions should not lead interviewees to confirm hypotheses. Without reading his advice, I probably would have unwittingly asked questions that were too specific. My attempts to solicit the information I needed might have limited my subjects' responses in ways that, although confirming my argument, obscured feelings and events that complicated or contradicted my interpretation. 

I also relied on a few other sources for thinking about responsible consent practices for my interviews. Most basic, but also most helpful, is the Oral History Association's Principles and Best Practices.  I also really liked the section on "Establishing Ethical Relationships" in the Baylor University Institute for Oral History's "Introduction to Oral History." Finally, the informed consent form I drafted for my project is loosely modeled after this one from Boston College.

Now that I have four interviews under my belt, I think it's safe to say that without these resources I may have gotten the job done, but not done well. While there are still things I want to improve about my interview technique--more on that later--I'm getting the information I need to better understand the history of Washington Heights-Inwood and the YM-YWHA.