Oral history is one of my favorite ways to discover the past. While in some instances I can only wish to interview people (e.g. Bible characters), in my recent history it is possible to ask people what it was like to experience a particular event, person, and to learn about their life experience. I had the privilege, for example, to interview one of the last living persons who personally knew Ellen G. White. It was her great-granddaughter, Mabel Miller Robinson.
Conducting an oral history is incredibly easy. Perhaps you know of someone who knows the story about how your local church came about, or, perhaps you have a retired missionary or pioneer member in your particular congregation. Such a person may even be a relative. Whatever the circumstance, if you know of someone who you identify as having a significant story then this guide is for you.
(1) Recording device. It can be as simple as your iPhone or a simple pocket recorder. Now with digital memory don’t be cheap. Just get a large memory card so that you do not have to worry about running out of memory. There is nothing worse than getting set up only to find out that the recording stopped part way through the interview. I also recommend that if possible consider using a digital video camera to shoot video, but if that is not possible, audio is essential to document the oral history.
(2) Ask open-ended questions. Never ask questions that end in a “no” or “yes” or some kind of question that ends with a quick answer. The different is illustrated simply with the following two questions: (a) Was your day good? or (b) How was your day? The latter question leaves it open to discuss what the person wants to share with you about their day. In an oral history I recommend that you think through these questions ahead of time so that you can relax and enjoy the interview. I find that in a professional oral history that meeting with the person ahead of time to discuss what things should be discussed, and then as I conduct the interview I can focus my attention on the interview and jot down follow-up questions as we proceed.
(3) Starting the interview. When you begin, just document who you are, the person being interview, and the date and location. This will help future researchers to know what they are looking at. If the oral history is conducted over multiple sessions continue to label each session with this information.
(4) Expectations. Agree with the interviewee ahead of time what expectations they have. This may be as simple as agreeing what questions they may want you to ask, and some times, areas that they do not want brought up. An essentially point is also to ask the interviewee if they want the interview released right away, or some times, in the case of sensitive information some times people will restrict the oral history to be only released after their death. Respect for the wishes of the interviewee is essential to be able to build rapport and trust.
(5) Transcription. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of oral history is going back through the transcript. If the work is done in a timely manner it is helpful to send it back to the interviewee. The person can often fix the spelling of unusual names and places that you might not be able to spell. At the conclusion both the interviewer and interviewee should both be able to look back upon the experience that they are proud of and that helps to illuminate the past.
Oral history is fun. I hope that you will consider someone who you can interview. And when you are finished, be sure to deposit a copy of the recording and transcript at a Seventh-day Adventist archive such as the Center for Adventist Research at Andrews University.