Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Best Topic Isn't Always the Most Obvious Topic

I mentioned in a previous post that I am currently in the midst of a large oral history project focused on my local community.  Conducting oral history interviews is front and center on my mind these days.

One of the challenging parts of interviewing someone is knowing what to ask them.  There are a number of websites that provide sample questions for interviews.

Here is a selection of sample questions to get you started:

While I happen to be conducting a large project, oral history interviewing could be as simple as talking to your mother or father over a cup of coffee. The key thing is to ask them questions and to record their answers so that you have them for the future.

While the above guides provide lots of sample questions keep in mind that the best topic isn't always going to be the most obvious topic.

For instance, during the course of my interviews I wanted to get a sense of how local residents were affected by major historical events.  I used various events such as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the first landing on the moon. I had hoped that events of national or international scope would elicit responses from everyone.

I was wrong! Not everyone reacts the same way and with the same depth of emotion to major events. Ironically, it was a local event that really got my interviewees talking. The one event that generated the most dialogue and most passionate, animated response was the "Blizzard of '78" that hit the northeastern United States in the winter of 1978.

Perhaps there is a local event or storm that impacted your area. Create a list of a few possible subjects so that if you don't get much response with one topic you can move on to the next. When you find that "golden topic" that everyone wants to talk about, write it down so that you can continue to use it in the future.

Remember, once they get talking, sit back, relax and let them talk! Capture history and memories from their eyes. Your job is to record it and save it for the future.


  1. Well said! When I 'interviewed' my parents, topics that were a big success included (1) personal experiences during the Great Depression, and (2) changes in domestic technology (cooking, laundry, lighting, refrigeration etc.)

  2. Transport and holidays are two more topics that people talk about. Buying their first car. Their one week family getaway. Fay spoke for some time on walking 3 km each way with the two children in the pram to go shopping then as the children got older they pulled the go-cart with the shopping and how it was a time for talking and singing.

  3. I concur with the local event... in my hometown, Coon Rapid, Iowa, we had a big snowstorm over the 1961 year-end holidays... I mentioned it on a Facebook hometown group, and got all kinds of great comments... more than most topics on the group in a couple of years... Special trigger of recall is what we seek. Continued best wishes on your project, Marian! ;-)

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  5. I was thinking the other day that I have to do this for the stories my mother has told me. I keep saying I am going to but I really need to do it. One story I want her to tell while I record is the one where in about 1956 they were coming over in an old war ship from Germany how she was saved from going overboard (at age 12) in a storm. She was more worried about getting in trouble then in the fact that she was almost washed away. She is also the one that knows stories from my fathers grandmother.

  6. I'm chuckling! I got a baby out of that Blizzard of '78!