- Don't talk too much yourself. Just ask questions, and give your interviewee room to expand.
- Getting people to talk about their families often works as an ice-breaker, as well as providing opportunities for follow-up.
- Asking to be talked through a typical day or year, or a particular day or event can also be fruitful.
- Another tack is to mention an event or practice you know about and ask your interviewee's opinion.
- Old photographs are a good way to stimulate reminiscences.
- Make sure you get personal details like date of birth, family members, places of work, so the testimony can be put in its historical context.
After the interview
Testimony may be worth collecting simply in order to preserve it, but recordings in themselves are not history. They are evidence, just like documents, museum specimens and visual sources, and must be assessed for accuracy in the same ways.
'Oral testimony only becomes real history when it's been placed in an historical context ...'
Moreover speech is spontaneous, not thought out, so even the most fascinating account usually needs to be edited before being published in any way - though not 'improved' or changed without showing where something's been taken out.
Above all, oral testimony only becomes real history when it's been placed in an historical context, measured up against other sources, and compared to what historians have already written. When this is done obscure, forgotten lives begin to take on historical meaning, and help historians to explain why things took the course they did.
About the author
Dr Stephen Caunce is a senior lecturer in history at the University of Central Lancashire, Preston. The oral testimony used here was gathered for two books: Amongst Farm Horses: Farm Servants in East Yorkshire (Alan Sutton, 1991) and Oral History and the Local Historian (Longmans, 1994).