Talking History: Ten Lessons for Running an Oral History Project
Wilson Center Global Fellow Elisabeth Roehrlich shares advice for conducting oral history interviews.
Above: Still from author's interview with former IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei.
Ten lessons for running an oral history project
Diplomatic historians have a love-hate relationship with oral history. Most agree that interviews with former politicians and officials provide important insights, especially when historical records are not (or not yet) available.
But the memories of individuals have limits. Some historians argue that oral history helps access marginalized histories that are not part of the official record, while others warn about overemphasizing the historical relevance of anecdotes.
In 2015, I launched an oral history project of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). My motivation was twofold: first, I wanted to learn more about the history of this international organization, the archives of which are still to a great extent closed (despite some noticeable efforts to increase transparency). Second, I wanted to help preserve the institutional memory of this important institution. The Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Austrian Central Bank generously funded the project, during which I conducted interviews with former officials, inspectors, and diplomats. My colleague Klaudija Sabo, a historian and filmmaker in charge of filming the interviews, became the project’s creative mind. To date, nineteen interviews can be watched online.
Conducting oral history interviews increased my understanding and knowledge of the IAEA’s history tremendously, and I am glad that I undertook the adventure. There is broad disciplinary variety in oral history, ranging from critical oral history conferences to lifetime interviews. Some interviews are published later, others are used as background research for dissertations. Therefore, the lessons I learned over the course of my project may not be true for all projects, but hopefully they can be helpful for those who consider conducting oral history interviews.
- Ask for advice. Colleagues who have managed similar projects will have much experience to share. Likewise, insiders whose professional career is linked to your research topic will be helpful in establishing contacts to potential interviewees. There is also much background material and guidance online, for example on the Oral History Association’s website. There is even a special list on H-Net, called H-Oralhist. If you want in-depth training, the Chemical Heritage Foundation is one of several institutions offering courses in conducting oral history interviews.
- Prepare a project summary. Before reaching out to potential interviewees, consider writing a short description of your project that describes its aims, mentions funders, and provides a short bio or a link to your CV. This gives potential future interviewees the chance to learn more about you as a scholar and help them in making their decision on whether or not to give an interview.
- Know your technology. Whether you record only audio or decide to videotape the interviews, there are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. Video recordings document nonverbal communication (gestures, mimics), while audio-only recordings allow a more relaxed interview. No matter which technology you use: make sure you know it well. There are countless technical problems that can occur and if your interview is not recorded successfully, it is not an oral history interview.
- Be in control of the interview. Interviewing eminent people can be intimidating, but I found that that those who agree to give an interview enjoy talking about their career and sharing their recollections. A rehearsal interview or starting your project with someone you know might help to reduce nervousness. Try to be in control of the interview.
- Don’t steal your own thunder. In many cases, you will have a brief preparatory meeting or phone conversation with the interviewee to discuss time, date, and scope of the interview. However, try to avoid too detailed conversations before the actual interview, and limit pre-interview chatter to topics other than the scope of your interview. An exciting story will sound less exciting (and come across less naturally) if you have to ask the interviewee to repeat something she or he said before.
- Choose the location wisely. Your setting should be quiet (to avoid background noise on the recording) and comfortable (to allow for a relaxed interview atmosphere). This can be at an office or at the interviewee’s home. Mute your phones (and ask your interviewee to do likewise)—and don’t forget about the land line. If you are recording at the university, inform your colleagues in advance or place signs at the office door to avoid disturbances.
- Don’t try to impress. Be informed and know your subject, but you don’t have to demonstrate your interview partner how well prepared you are. Often, you will feel the urge of saying something to show that you know what she or he is talking about—but keep in mind that you want them to do the talking.
- Stand the silence. That is one of the first things I learned. When the interviewee stops talking, don’t shoot a follow-up question right away. Sometimes, it is just a break and they will continue talking after a few seconds—often, that’s when the best stories come. In general, ask open questions and avoid asking multiple questions.
- Use incentives. Consider using pictures or historical documents to initiate the conversation or to direct the interview to another topic. Do not keep them as a trick up your sleeve—advise your interviewees beforehand that you might bring historical documents or archival materials. Some interviewees will bring documents or papers from their private collections to the interview.
- Make sure you are allowed to use the recorded material afterwards. No matter the purpose of your interview—a book project, a web publication, or an academic dissertation—inform the interviewees about that purpose. Ask them to agree in writing and consider drafting a model consent letter or release form.
Even if you do not run an oral history project yourself, oral history offers a helpful resource for historical research. There are many great projects out there. Former IAEA official Thomas Shea organized a video oral history project for the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, which focuses on the foundations of international safeguards. The project’s website offers videos and transcripts, covering the history of nuclear safeguards from the first agreements to the Additional Protocol. The United Nations has run an oral history series on various aspects of the world organization’s history, in cooperation with Yale University. Audiovisual materials, transcripts, and background information are available at the website of the Dag Hammarskjold Library. In the digital age, you can access many fascinating oral history projects from your own desk.
About the Author
History and Public Policy Program
The History and Public Policy Program strives to make public the primary source record of 20th and 21st century international history from repositories around the world, to facilitate scholarship based on those records, and to use these materials to provide context for classroom, public, and policy debates on global affairs. Read more
Cold War International History Project
The Cold War International History Project supports the full and prompt release of historical materials by governments on all sides of the Cold War. Through an award winning Digital Archive, the Project allows scholars, journalists, students, and the interested public to reassess the Cold War and its many contemporary legacies. It is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program. Read more
Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
The Nuclear Proliferation International History Project is a global network of individuals and institutions engaged in the study of international nuclear history through archival documents, oral history interviews, and other empirical sources. At the Wilson Center, it is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program. Read more
North Korea International Documentation Project
The North Korea International Documentation Project serves as an informational clearinghouse on North Korea for the scholarly and policymaking communities, disseminating documents on the DPRK from its former communist allies that provide valuable insight into the actions and nature of the North Korean state. It is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program. Read more