Voices and Viewpoints: Oral History

I had been an oral history consultant for a decade before I discovered how important my work could be. It happened one the day in 2005 when I visited the home of labor lawyer Eugene Keating.  He was in bed, weak with cancer and days away from the end, but Keating wanted to get his story on record. We did.

Ultimately history is about people, and historians have a duty to men and women like Keating who take their life’s work seriously and understand its historical importance. Oral history is the way that we fulfill it.

There are interviewers whose method is to start the recorder, let the interviewee talk, and sort it all out later. That is not my approach. True, the session should be all about the interviewee, but I’ve always believed that was up to me to do the work necessary, before, during, and after, to ensure that the results did justice to a morning or afternoon’s interview and a full life’s work.

To honor the commitment of people like Eugene Keating is one reason to hire a professional oral history consultant. There is a second, equally important reason. Some assume that only a lawyer can really interview a lawyer, a scientist a scientist, and so on. It does not work that way. Whenever fellow specialists or veterans of the same organization or get together, they tend to talk in shorthand. Inside baseball obscures more than it reveals. It is difficult for an insider to carry out the kind of discovery that makes for good oral history. Most importantly, oral history is an art, a craft, and a profession—you want someone who has done it before.

What Is Oral History?

Everyone is familiar with interviews. Journalists use them to source their stories, television news magazines present them with ponderousness or sensationalism, and web outlets run lively edited versions. Interviews are good for finding out facts. They usually focus on a particular event or issue and attempt to extract knowledge that will benefit a particular audience in the short term.  In some respects, interviews are dispensable.

Oral histories, on the other hand, are intended to cast a wide net, to capture a life’s work, and they are meant to last. They establish context by starting with personal background, education, and early experience.  They provide perspective by allowing interviewees to talk broadly about their careers—who they worked with, how circumstances changed, and what they accomplished. Finally, a well-conducted oral history should be relevant to more than just the project at hand. While every session must have focus, no interviewer knows exactly what will be of interest a generation from now. Good oral history consultants realize that they have an opportunity that will be unavailable years on, and that they owe it to future audiences to preserve information that will be relevant not only today but tomorrow.

Selecting the Interviewees

Whom to interview? It depends. I have gone into some projects with a special focus in mind such as interviewing the women commissioners of the Securities and Exchange Commission. The majority of my oral history projects are for a company history book or intended to capture the history of an institution like a university or an association. In those cases what I am looking for is perspective. Senior management, both current and former, inevitably make the list because they, more than others, spent their time thinking broadly about the organization, knew what it was up against, and made decisions that changed its history. But if the book is to be a sizeable one there are also specialists who should be on the record, in finance, sales and marketing, even personnel. People in those positions will have perspective and will know details that no one else can provide. The same goes for employees. When I was working on Never Stand Still, a full-scale history of trucking company Consolidated Freightways, some of my most memorable interviews were with drivers. The real finds, of course, are the people who have “worked their way up:” an employee who became CEO, a student who became college administrator—those are the kinds of interviewees who give you the most direct gateway to the history you intend to capture or to write.

Researching the Interview Agenda

Few things are as important to the success of an interview as preparation. Interviewees will quickly discover whether an oral history consultant knows what he or she is talking about. If they do, interviewees will be grateful for the effort and all the more willing to participate constructively.

There are three levels of preparation. First you have to develop the context for the interviewee’s life, particularly the industries or institutions within which they have worked.  Since many of my oral histories are undertaken to support a book project, that part of the job is often taken care of. If not, I usually build a research phase into the project so that I will have the time required to put together the big picture.

Next comes research regarding the interviewee. This may require one of two different approaches. For public figures or industry leaders there will be a great deal of material available in trade journals and newspapers. These people may well have been interviewed before. In such cases the task is to keep the research project manageable—to keep from getting bogged down in the details and to think about how your interview can complement and extend existing accounts. For those who left little public record the approach must be different.  You may begin with their resume (or by building one with assistance from the client or even the interviewee). You can then compare the roles they have played in the institution with the history that you know, figuring out which parts of a company or institution’s history they may have been most directly involved in. That process helps you determine what kinds of things you would like to talk about.

And “talking” is important. A good interview is not a question and answer session. It is a conversation in which the interviewer says little. With that in mind, when I am preparing, I try to avoid drafting specific questions. Instead I prepare an agenda, essentially an outline of how I would like the conversation to go, with broad topics divided roughly into chronological segments: childhood and education, early experience, and landmarks in the later career.

Oral History Technology

One last important point about preparation—you must know how to use your equipment. I have seen interviews spoiled because they were recorded with bad equipment, at the wrong volume level, or with bad microphone placement. I once had a tape recorder fail me in the middle of an interview. I was fortunate that the interviewee was retired, with plenty of free time, and that he was also a gracious person. I excused myself, hurried to the store to buy a new recorder, and for years afterwards I always brought, and used, two machines. Fortunately, I had realized that the recorder stopped working.

The recorder that failed me used cassettes. The one I hurriedly purchased was digital. Now everything is digital, and clients often expect high quality audio. They increasingly expect video as well. You do not have to be a sound engineer to record high quality digital audio, even with multiple mike setups. But I leave the videography up to professionals and am always ready with a recommendation.

The final matter of preparation is scheduling the interview. In almost every case, I leave it to the client to tell the interviewees about the project and to let them know that someone will be coming to talk about their career. Then I follow up with a phone call or email to schedule the session. In some cases the client also asks that I run the outline by the interviewee.

I try to keep this process as simple as possible for two reasons. First, there are those, even the highly accomplished, who will be intimidated by the prospect of an interview. Some wish to postpone the session for weeks or even months so they can do research. I explain that I can get most names and dates from my research, that what I am really after are the things that they will remember—the highlights, not the minutiae, of their careers. Some people wish to rehearse the interview over the phone. I try to discourage that because it takes the spontaneity out of the actual interview, making it less a lively conversation than a dull performance.

When it comes to venue, I am usually amenable to any place that is quiet and comfortable for the interviewee. A secluded room in the house (no grandfather clocks) is good for a retiree. For a working executive that may be an office or a conference room. Some interviewees will want to talk in a public place like a restaurant or a club. I have complied in a few cases but have usually been sorry. There are always distractions and background noise. Nearly every public place has music playing in the background that you cannot escape.

Being Prepared for Special Requests

Most of my book clients just assume that I will be doing interviews of some sort. As part of book projects, audio interviews are almost always appropriate, mostly in person and sometimes by telephone. Although an in-person session usually makes for better rapport and better interviews, I would be hard pressed to come up with an example from the scores of telephone interviews that I have conducted that did not succeed due to the distance.

Early in my career, audio was the standard for more formal oral history interview projects. Lately video has become the standard medium, and while I always use professionals to capture the video, there are important adjustments I have learned to make during a video session.

Interviewers instinctively use verbal cues to let the interviewee know that he is interested and understand. No one notices these until they try to edit out clean excerpts. When you are interviewing for broadcast quality audio or video it is important to leave a clean signal.  Do not say “uh-huh” over the interviewee to show that you understand—nod your head instead. And always wait until the interviewee is completely done talking before you say anything.

Then there is the question of how many people to invite to the party. There is a reason that cameramen wear black—so they stay in the background and interviewees forget about them. At times a client or interviewee will ask that others be present. This is never a good idea. Sometimes the interviewee plays to the crowd.  Sometimes the other party—a well-meaning spouse at the kitchen table, for example—insists on repeatedly interrupting to “clarify” things. I have tried many direct and indirect ways to politely keep observers from interfering. I well remember one instance when the subject, appropriately, stopped the interview and asked his overly helpful wife to leave us alone until the session was over.

Finally, I have had a surprising number of clients come up with the same great idea—have interviewees gather in a circle and bounce old stories off one another. I have been obliged to take part in this a handful of times and it has never worked. There are arguments about what really happened that cannot be resolved. Old associates inevitably lapse into inside baseball that obscures more than enlightens and invariably some people defer while others dominate. In recognition of the importance of every interviewee, I always recommend keeping things one on one.

The Interview

There will always be pleasantries before the recording starts. Many interviewees express concern about how much they are likely to remember. I always take the opportunity to minimize expectations and assure them that this is “their interview” so they should feel free to talk about things that stand out most clearly in their memories. I assure them that those are likely to be the most important topics for discussion.

The first few minutes of every oral history interview session are important—you are getting to know the interviewee and he or she is getting to know you. Many interviewees are guarded at first. Some insist that they are future-oriented and do not live in the past. Some are worried that they will not know the answer to a question. Mostly they just wonder what exactly this person with the recorder wants.

That is why I usually begin the session with topics that are neither challenging nor threatening nor crucial to the interview. Starting from the beginning works perfectly—everyone has the elevator speech about when they grew up, where they went to school, and how they got started.

By the time I am heading into the most essential part of the interview I have usually established good rapport with the interviewee. But some important prerequisites have to be met. First, you must actively listen. Second, you must demonstrate familiarity with the interviewee’s life and work.  The third prerequisite is one that amateurs often fail to fulfill: let the interviewee be the interviewee. Some people are great storytellers, but others are not. Get the stories when you can, but when you cannot, figure out what else is there. Some interviewees are highly analytical. Some are great with detail. Some are good amateur historians, able to put their life experiences into broader context. In any case, do not try to force an analyst to tell stories and do not try to make a tale spinner into an academic. Figure out how to play to your interviewee’s strengths as you lead them through their past.

That last point is important. People live their lives, and generally remember them, in sequence. That fact is the oral historian’s most valuable tool. Do not jump from time to time and subject to subject. When you help the interviewee work systematically through his or her life, the process brings depth to potentially pat answers and jars loose memories that people had not recalled in years. If interviewees want to jump around a bit, let them, but they usually appreciate sticking to the narrative and will return to it if gently reminded.

There are some tricks of the trade that I employ consistently during an interview—none are difficult to perform, but all pay big dividends. First, be quiet. Most people are uncomfortable facing another person in silence. But very often interviewees will stop in the middle of a story or recollection to think over what they want to say next. Amateur interviewers almost always cut them off. I give the interviewee time to remember.

Second, if one of the goals of oral history is to get recollections in context, how do you do that?  I often employ the two-sentence format. The first sentence is a context-setting statement such as “This was a difficult period; the company was going through bankruptcy at the time.” Then comes the question: “So how were you able to keep the project going despite that?” In responding to this two-sentence format the interviewee will be encouraged to think about things in multiple dimensions and give a better response than he or she would in an answer to a simpler question.

It is easy for an oral historian to be preoccupied with what to ask next, but it always pays to pay close attention. Sometimes in a discussion the interviewee will let slip intriguing clues that there is something else back there, saying something in the middle of a story like “Bob, he was an unusual guy” and then continuing. If I have any suspicion that Bob might be important to my story, I come back soon for a simple clarification—”in what way was Bob unusual?” Even interviewers who do notice the aside may either forget to revisit the subject or opt not to get the clarification for fear of looking uninformed.

That gets to a last simple, but not always obvious, stratagem: ask obvious questions. Perhaps every magazine article you have read tells the same particular story in great detail and “everybody knows” a certain thing happened. If there is any chance the interviewee knows about it, ask anyway. There may have been something going on that was kept from the reporters or perhaps no one ever asked your source for the story before. By asking obvious questions you get two things: one, the certainty that you will have an original quote for your book, and two, the possibility that you’ll learn something new that you did not even know to ask about.

Keeping the Story Going (And on Track)

Most oral history interview sessions last 90 to 120 minutes. Busy people will have no more time to give you, and many retirees will visibly tire if they go on much longer. That means you have to have discipline. Many interviewees will go into the session expecting to talk about their lives in great detail, launching into childhood tales that stretch out and if that precedent is followed would put the approximate length of the interview somewhere around the 8 to 12-hour mark. The oral historian cannot let that happen. I am always ready to move things forward gently but firmly, even with an abrupt change of the subject if necessary. Less often an interviewee will want to jump straight into mid-career claiming that the rest “is not history.” I explain that it is and make sure to double back and get the required context.

Most of the interview, though, will be a matter of more careful calibration. The oral historian must be doing three things at once: talking notes (to show that he or she is interested and to jot down reminders), listening to the story being given, and figuring out approximately how much more time you can give to the current and future lines of inquiry.  Some interviewees you will need to slow down, encouraging them to develop things in greater detail. Most you will need to speed up, getting them to work through things at a pace that ensures that you will finish under the two-hour mark.

There are times when you will want an exhaustive, if not encyclopedic, interview. In that case schedule several sessions, but even so the rules for each individual session will be the same.

In any event, always leave time for that last question: “is there anything else that we should talk about?”  About a third of the time the answer is “that covers it.”  Another third of the time the interviewee notes that he or she could go on for hours. But the rest of the time, the interviewee will indeed bring up a subject or line of questioning that we missed. Sometimes it is important, sometimes not, but providing that option is the last way to deliver on the promise that it was indeed “their” interview.

After the Interview

The next step is getting a transcript made. Your oral history consultant should be able to take care of this for you. There is one important qualification, however. Do not expect a verbatim record like the kind a court stenographer provides. This is a distinction that often surprises clients: an oral history transcript is not meant to capture the exact words spoken during the interview. Instead it is intended to provide the best historical record possible. Therefore, two things become possible. First, the transcript can be cleaned up so that it reads well. “Uhs,” “Ohs,” and other verbal tics can be removed. You can even sort out the syntax to some extent in order to make the interview transcript easier to read.

A corollary to this is that both interviewer and interviewee should be allowed to make corrections and even to add a minimal amount of new material in order to clarify or improve the record provided in the interview. This does introduce complications, however, that can add greatly to the duration and expense of the project. Some interviewees will be fine with the transcript the way it is. Some will make a handful of corrections. A few may try to rewrite the transcript entirely, sometimes just to make themselves sound more eloquent (it is surprising to see a transcript of your own speech) and sometimes to add additional paragraphs and pages on new subjects. I do my best to discourage this and enlist the client’s help in persuading interviewees to keep edits minimal whenever possible.

Finally there is the matter of the release form. Officially speaking, both the interviewer and the interviewee “own” the contents of an oral history interview. Both parties can usually assume that the interview may be used to write a book currently under way. But if there is any chance that the client may want to use the material later, I provide them with a release form that I will sign and that they can have the interviewees sign.

When best to pull out the release form is a matter for debate. There are some clients who will not arrange for an interview unless the form is signed in advance. Others prefer getting the form signed immediately after the session. Early in my career, when sessions were almost always audio and the final product was a transcript, interviewees often wished to be allowed to make and approve edits before signing. This being a reasonable request, it became my standard procedure for many years. In some cases this was particularly appropriate because of a curious phenomenon: as interviews go on, even people who are reticent at first tend to open up, and a few will begin dishing out specifics about people and personalities that they later regret but are easily removed from the transcript. As it is increasingly assumed that video will be the final product, however, interviewees now tend to go into sessions with a bit more circumspection.

How to Use Oral History

With the project complete, the question becomes, how to use it? There has been a great deal of discussion, mostly in academic circles, about how oral histories should be used. Some of it has to do with the privileging of certain voices over others, some stems from the perceived trustworthiness of a particular type of interviewee.  In doing research in oral history collections kept in university archives I have even found notes attached to transcripts that said, in effect, “don’t trust this person—I don’t like what he said.” Those oral historians or archivists may have good intentions, but I believe that decisions about the validity of an interview should always be left to the historian using it. Documentary sources can have equally significant, if different, problems of accuracy and bias.

Finally there is the question of accessibility. The majority of my interviews have been conducted as part of a corporate history book project, with the client opting not to make them publicly available. They go onto a disk or into a box for future historians to use. Other interviews, including my ongoing work for the SEC Historical Society, go online shortly after conduct. In a few cases I have conducted interviews for clients who wanted to preserve the record for posterity but for the time being chose to keep them under lock and key. A current client intends to put a 20-year lock down on the interviews.

That is unfortunate for contemporary scholars and writers, but in the span of history that is covered in the average interview, twenty years is not that long a time. It is much better to do the interviews than not. And it is gratifying to know that when both I and the interviewee are gone, some future historian will delight to find an oral history interview that provides at least a few of the pieces of the historical puzzle that he or she will be working on.

If preserving your organization’s past for the future is a piece in your puzzle, give me a call to discuss an oral history project.