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social sciences

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Oral History  
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Doing Oral History

Oral history requires sensitivity to the target population and familiarity with basic recording techniques. The skills involved can be learned relatively quickly, however, making it a good method for community-based researchers. Those just starting out should check the holdings of local libraries, museums, or historical societies and avail themselves of any training they offer.

Web sites from Baylor University's Institute for Oral History and the Regional Oral History Office at the University of California, Berkeley provide tutorials, readings lists, and resources for starting a project. Several glbtq organizations are also actively compiling or maintaining oral history collections.

Sponsor Message.

Chances are you already know individuals with stories of "the old days" you want to get on tape before they are lost. When you contact a prospective interviewee (called "narrator" in oral history parlance), explain the purpose of the project and how you got her or his name (a reference from someone she or he knows makes this task much easier). Offer to send a brochure or other written description of your project. If she or he is willing to proceed, schedule an interview and gather some basic biographical information: birth year, birthplace, locale(s) where she or he grew up and lived, occupation, ethnicity, and list of possible discussion topics.


Older manuals recommend reel-to-reel recorders, but audiocassette and video recorders are widely used at this time. Do not use a cassette recorder's built-in microphone; their poor sound quality makes any subsequent use, especially transcription, difficult. An external microphone is worth the modest investment.

Use 60-minute tapes. They are less apt to snarl and less subject to "print-through" (sound echoes) after storage. Get past your equipment's learning curve before your first interview.


Most interviews take place in the narrator's or interviewer's home. Cafes or other public settings are too noisy. The best choice is a carpeted room with no appliances running. Background noises--radios, televisions, air conditioners, and hum from fluorescent lights--impair the clarity of the tape. Politely request that these be turned off or that the interview take place in a room isolated from their sound. If necessary medical equipment is running, compensate through microphone placement or boosting the recording level.

Pause the tape during noise from sirens or airplanes. When again underway, ask the narrator to repeat his last statement. It is appropriate to respond to the narrator's comments, but cultivate the habit of using non-verbal cues as much as possible (smiling, nodding), so that the narrator's voice comes through clearly.

A microphone may make some narrators nervous at first. In that case, begin with easily answered questions, such as year and place of birth, and gradually introduce more open-ended questions. Others might be born storytellers who can be prompted from the start with, "Tell me that story about ...."

Prepare a set of questions beforehand, but be flexible and allow for spontaneity. Questions will vary according to whether the narrator is an activist, an academic, a person who came out at midlife, a tavern regular, a parent, a child of a gay parent, or a member of a religious congregation. Try to elicit sensory detail (sights and sounds). For example, you might ask for a description of the narrator's first visit to a gay venue or first encounter with another gay person, and how the reality compared to the expectations.

If a topic evokes tears or emotion, give the narrator a chance to regain composure before continuing. Gently offer to pause the tape or change the subject if he wishes. Most will insist on carrying on, however, because this is the type of experience that they wish to get on record.

If a narrator uses gestures and facial expressions, describe them on tape for the listener. Ask the narrator to define slang terms for the benefit of those listening after their meaning is lost. Don't worry about how you come across. If later on you think your questions sounded naive or silly, remember that future scholars will be grateful for information that has disappeared from common knowledge.

As the interview nears an end, give the narrator an opportunity to introduce any other topics he or she wants to cover. Close the interview by thanking the narrator and any other participants.

Glbtq Topics and Issues

One of my favorite questions is, "What did you want to be when you grew up?" because it often elicits descriptions of childhood gender contrariness. "When were you first aware of your sexual orientation (or gender identity)?" will take many narrators back to pre-teen years. Be aware that some will interpret this to mean the age of their first sexual experience; if so, you can have an interesting discussion on sexuality as activity versus mental or emotional state.

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