Oral History

Grade Levels: Grades 4-12


Sunshine State Standards:

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(Although this activity deals with creating oral histories in general, many of the suggestions here would be appropriate for an interview with a Holocaust survivor, liberator, or rescuer.)

Older people, with their first-hand knowledge of the past and their lifetime accumulation of skills, play a vital role in creating, preserving, and passing down cultural traditions from generation to generation. Through their stories, art, memories and keepsakes, older Americans embody and express the values and history of their families and communities. They provide an invaluable link to our past and they give meaning and direction to our future. You will find some guidelines here for collecting oral history. You will find general guidelines for interviews as well as a sample list of questions. Please adapt these to your own needs and circumstances. Be careful when requesting a person to interview. For many, this is a difficult task.

The first step in conducting an interview is to consider the equipment you will need. Tape recording and note-taking are the most common means of recording oral history. Tape recording is preferable. It allows you to capture your narrator's stories and experiences completely and accurately, as well as make a lasting record of his or her voice.

At first the people you interview might feel a little uncomfortable with a tape recorder, but after the interview gets going they'll forget that it is even there. Always keep a pen and paper with you during a tape recorded interview so you can note important points or jot down follow-up questions that come to mind. Practice using the tape recorder before your interview so that you are familiar with how it works. If you are at ease with your equipment, it will help to put your informant at ease also.

Another useful piece of equipment is a camera. It allows you to capture a visual record of the interview and is especially valuable if you are documenting an action. Sometimes a video camera works well.

Procedures: The Interview

Creative expressions of the elderly, their stories, memories, and keepsakes--are rooted in a lifetime of experience. When interviewing older relatives or neighbors, be sure to seek out not only what they can tell you about the past, but what they can tell you about life in the present. How have certain family traditions evolved? What holiday customs are practiced today that were not a generation ago?

What can they tell you about the ecology of an area? The seasonal cycles of life? What are some of their skills they have acquired from their years of experience that can be taught to future generations?

Remember that the anecdotes and stories you collect are valuable not necessarily because they represent the historical truth, but because they represent a truth--a particular way of looking at the world. Every interview is unique.


Conduct your first interview with someone you feel very comfortable with, such as an older neighbor that you know well or a favorite relative. The interview should take place in a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere. The home of your narrator is usually the best place, but there may also be other settings that would be appropriate, such as a workplace, store, or park.

Prior to Interview:

Get permission for the interview in advance, and schedule a time that he or she is comfortable with. Make it clear if you plan to use a tape recorder or camera. Make sure the purpose of the interview is made clear and what will happen to the tapes and/or notes. Is this an assignment? Are you planning to write a family history? Publish an article? Who will keep the tapes and photos?

Do your homework--prepare a list of questions ahead of time. Make sure they are clear, concise and evocative. Avoid questions that elicit simple yes or no answers. During the interview, know which questions are key, but don't be tied to your list. The questions are meant simply as a framework.

During the Interview:

If you are using a recorder, tape a short introduction stating the place and date of the interview and the names of the persons involved. Begin with a question or a topic that you know will elicit a full reply from your narrator. Maybe ask about a story you once heard him tell. You may want to start with some basic biographical questions, such as "Where and when were you born?" These questions are easy to answer and can help break the ice.

Show interest and listen carefully to what your informant is saying. Encourage him or her with nods and smiles. Take an active part in the conversation without dominating it. Be alert to what your narrator wants to talk about--don't be afraid to detour from your list of questions if he or she takes up a rich subject you hadn't even thought of.

Bring props into play. Old photographs, family photo albums, scrapbooks, letters, heirlooms, and mementos help stimulate memories and trigger stories. Don't turn the tape recorder on and off while the interview is in progress. Not only are you likely to miss important information, but you will give your informant the impression that you think some of what he or she is saying isn't worth recording. Never run the recorder without your narrator's knowledge. Be sensitive to the needs of your informant. If he or she is getting tired, stop the interview and schedule another session.

Some possible Questions:

Assessment: Presenting the Findings

Now that the interview is complete, what do you do with the information you have gathered? There are a number of ways to preserve and present your finding. You may simply want to index and /or transcribe your materials and store them where you and other members of your family or community can have easy access to them, such as with a family member, in a scrapbook, or at a local archive.

If you interviewed your grandmother about traditional foods and recipes that have been passed down through the generations, you may want to put together a family recipe book illustrated with snapshots of grandmother cooking in the kitchen at holiday gatherings and family meals. Or you may want to write a family history, compile an annotated family photo album, or make a scrapbook filled with keepsakes, mementos, old photos, reminiscences, and other items that embody and preserve your family heritage.

If you have interviewed older people in your community about local traditions, customs, and history, you may want to write and produce a newsletter or magazine featuring the folkways of your local area.

Making a grandparents book--a scrapbook or album that will reflect a family's own history as far back as the oldest member can recall. The whole family can join in gathering the material and the books as they take form will be full of surprises and discoveries for everyone.


Allan Lichtman. Your Family History. New York: Random House, 1978
Comprehensive guide to conducting family history research.

David Weitzman. My Backyard History Book. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1975.
A how-to family and local history book specifically aimed at children.

A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust
Produced by the Florida Center for Instructional Technology,
College of Education, University of South Florida © 1997-2013.

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