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Designing Britain 1945 - 1975 > Oral testimony and the Interpretation of the Crafts > Oral History
ORAL HISTORY: background and techniques

This module introduces oral history as a central research methodology. Interviews from the National Electronic and Video Archive of the Crafts, (NEVAC), are included in this site as examples of oral history used to help shed light on an area of study which hasn't been widely investigated. This page introduces you to oral history and gives you some pointers for conducting your own interviews.

The excerpts from interviews with William Newland contained in this website are all taken from interviews made by NEVAC. Newland was interviewed in 1994, forty years after the events he is discussing. Also, the interviewer was not only interested in the coffee bar designs but everything else going on in Newland's life. Consequently the interviews are useful as a record of what one of the participants in this history remembers, but they are not factually verifiable. They are also only edited excerpts from much longer interviews and should be considered as such.
Before you conduct your own oral history interviews, it is worth addressing some of the criticisms of it. Interviewees are often asked about events years after they happened, people tell a story in a way that reflects well on them and they have a tendency to telescope events together. However, all of these criticisms equally apply to biographies, autobiographies, newspapers and most other forms of evidence relied upon by historians.
When you listen to the recordings on this site or ones you make yourself, you may ask, how can we substantiate that story? 'We've only got his word for that', or 'why should we believe one person's view? The answer is that oral testimony is one tool to be used alongside others. Paul Thompson states the oral historian's case most clearly:


History, in short, is not just about events, or structures, or patterns of behaviour, but also about how these are experienced and remembered in the imagination. 1
What is important about oral history is that it gives voice to the individual who experienced the history we are looking at: whether it is yesterday or fifty years ago.
By the end of this module you will have conducted interviews of your own to test the usefulness to you of oral history as a research tool.

Some useful sources relating to oral history:

Paul Thomspon, The Voice of the Past (Oral History), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1988 (second edition)

Valerie Raleigh Yow, Recording Oral History (a practical guide for social scientists), Sage Publications, London, 1994
An oral history technique site from Indiana State University, USA, which gives an insight in to one person's approach to interviewing.

Interview techniques:

The following are just pointers to help you if you are unfamiliar with conducting interviews.

Say as little as possible
The single most important thing to remember is that no one wants to hear the interviewer: say as little as possible.

Don't ask 'yes, no' questions
Ask open ended questions such as 'when did you open your coffee bar?' and 'what is your business strategy?' These sort of questions cannot be answered by a 'yes' or 'no' and should therefore elicit a more fruitful response than, 'do you enjoy running a coffee bar' and 'do you intend to expand your business?'. If you begin a question with 'what', 'when ' or 'why' you can be sure you won't get 'yes' 'no' responses.

Don't ask leading questions
A major criticism of oral history interviewing is that the interviewer puts words in to the mouth of the interviewee. Don't say, 'so you opened your shop in 1955, tell me about it'. You should say, 'when did you open your shop and tell me what you remember of the first day's trading?'.

Don't worry too much about your list of questions
Be prepared and have a list of questions that you want to ask or issues you want to raise but don't let them rule the interview. If an interesting area comes up then pursue that: you can always return to your questions later.

Be realistic
Don't try to fit an interviewee's life story in to an interview unless you have plenty of time. Usually you will not be paying the interviewee and you are therefore relying on their goodwill and it is unfair to take up too much of their time. Concentrate on one particular area of interest and cover that properly.

Don't worry about silences
Give the interviewee time to think when you have asked a question. Don't jump in with a comment or further question until you are sure the interviewee has finished. Often a silence will be filled by the interviewee so don't be too eager to fill it yourself.

Ask yourself 'why'?
Always ask yourself, 'why am I interviewing this person?'. Don't just randomly interview people, choose them for a reason that adds something to your research.

Choose your subject carefully
When you choose an interviewee, make sure they are happy to be recorded and are comfortable. Some interviewees 'clam up' when the tape rolls and the interview is subsequently of little use.

Choose a medium you are happy with
Don't try to video an interview if you are unfamiliar with the technology. Use audio instead (and vice versa).

Make sure the sound quality is as good as you can get
Viewers can put up with a blurred image or poor camera work but poor sound is more problematic. Make sure you use a good quality microphone and check the sound levels as you begin recording.

Bring a friend to help
Rather than try to conduct the interview and record it, ask a reliable friend to come along and do the filming or work the audio recorder. It is much better to have to concentrate on one thing at a time, so get help if you can.

1. see Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past, Chapter 4, Evidence.