Guidelines for Conducting Interviews
When a researcher finds a living primary source who likely has unique knowledge about a topic, an oral history is the best tool. Oral history is a recorded conversation in which the researcher asks the subject to verbally share his/her direct experiences. It can be a complete history of the subject’s life, but more often, it is about a particular event or time. Oral histories recordings can be audio or audio-visual and are commonly transcribed, meaning that the conversation is typed into a document that is preserved along with the recording.
Oral histories have been done for decades. Recordings and transcripts (the written record) exist in libraries and archives around the world. As part of the research process, historians search existing holdings to see if an oral history already exists before approaching a person of interest. Sometimes oral history interviews are just called “interviews.”
Basics about Interviews for NHD Projects
Interviews are NOT required for an NHD project.
- Interviews are not mentioned in the Contest Rule Book.
- They will not give you an edge simply by being included.
- If they are done well and used effectively, they may increase the quality of an entry.
Interviews are not essential to the process of historical research.
- Historians do not interview other historians. It is inappropriate to do so. Instead, read historians' books and other published works.
- When appropriate, historians conduct oral history interviews with primary sources.
When interviews are appropriate, etiquette is important so that you make the best impression of yourself, your school, and National History Day®.
Learning when and how to conduct and include an interview is as essential as using any other tool in the researcher’s toolbox.
There are several key steps to determine whether an interview is needed:
- Build knowledge of your topic’s context through secondary sources.
- Use your school and local libraries first to learn the basic context of your topic and to get a sense of what historians have already concluded. Like historians, before researching a question, you need to understand basic context and get a sense of how other historians have analyzed the topic
- Look up facts and descriptions.
- Look for interpretations of your topic by historians. Often the databases in public libraries will hold scholarly articles where historians present their interpretations, or their views on history. Two different historians can look at the same topic and come to 2 different conclusions. For example, there are different opinions about the motives of the American industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropic donations.
- Keep a running list of things you want to know and cross them off as you go.
- Build a list of primary sources you would like to examine.
- Oral history interviews have been recorded and archived for decades. Always seek to use existing archived interviews before seeking to conduct your own. When searching, try using “oral history” as key words as well as “interview.”
- If you have unanswered questions on your list after you’ve done your research, consider whether you would like to talk with historians (experts) or primary sources (people who were present at the time of your topic).
- Historians/secondary sources: After you’ve read what a historian has written and consulted the secondary literature, if you have specific unanswered questions about a topic, you could then follow up with a historian or the curator of a public history institution, such as a museum or archives.
- Oral history/primary sources: If you’ve searched existing oral history holdings and still have specific unanswered questions or unrepresented perspectives, you could then reach out for an oral history interview. For example, if you really want to interview former President Jimmy Carter, you would first search for existing interviews that others have conducted with him. There are many and, after listening to/reading them, you might find the answers you were seeking. If not, then requesting an interview is your next step.
To request and conduct an interview, follow this etiquette checklist:
Put your request in writing – either in the form of an email or regular postal mail. This extra step greatly increases the success rate of your request, which is just that: a request. Assume that your subject receives numerous requests for interviews, probably from other NHD students. If you want your request to be answered, take the time to write a thoughtful request.
In your written request for an interview:
- Use a formal address and tone, such as “Dear Dr./Mr./Ms. Jones:”
- Use proper grammar, capitalization, punctuation and spelling.
- Introduce yourself and state your reason for writing.
- Demonstrate your depth of knowledge about the topic and about the subject’s work. You want to convey that you’ve researched your topic’s secondary sources and that you understand the context and the basics about your topic’s significance in history.
- Briefly explain about NHD, the yearly theme (if necessary), and the nature of your project.
- State exactly why you are asking this particular person for an interview, what you hope to accomplish and what you intend to do with the content (e.g., quotes, an audio or video excerpt, paraphrasing into your own words, etc.).
- Ask for dates that are at least one week in the future and a specific length of time as a maximum (suggestion: 20-30 minutes) and a phone number to call or place to meet, such as the subject’s office or home or a neutral place. Always plan to bring a trusted adult, such as a parent or teacher, with you and include that you will be doing so. Determine in advance whether a difference in time zone exists between you and your subject and make your 3 requests in your subject’s time zone. Example: “I live in Seattle and I see that you’re in St. Louis. Are you available between 3:30 and 5:30pm Central time?)”
Proofread your email or letter. Ask your teacher or another adult to check it as well.
If you receive a response, write back right away. If the answer is “no,” thank the person for his/her time and consideration of your question. If it’s “yes,” then finalize a time and confirm it.
Send a polite reminder confirmation a day or two before your scheduled interview.
If you are meeting in person, research the directions and allow extra time for traffic, parking, security, and confusion.
Call or arrive promptly at the scheduled time and end promptly when you said you would or earlier.
At the end of the call or visit, thank the subject verbally. Offer to share your finished project after the contest.
Write and send a written thank-you note within 24 hours.
If the subject expressed interest in seeing your finished project, send it after the contest.
This checklist is provided by The National World War II Museum.
Once you’ve confirmed your upcoming interview, it’s time to prepare. Here are some things to do:
- If you are using technology to communicate with your subject such as Skype or Google Hangout or any equipment to record audio, video or both, ensure that everything is in working order at least 30 minutes prior to the set time for the interview to begin. If you are bringing an additional person or persons to help you carry and set up your equipment (cameras, sound or lighting) make sure you include that information in your interview request.
- Have the questions you want to ask written out in advance. If your interview subject requests a copy of your questions in advance of the interview, please supply them. Also, make sure to consider the time allotted for the interview when writing down and organizing your questions – you don’t want to run out of time in the interview leaving your most important questions unanswered.
- If communicating remotely or setting up an in-person interview with your subject in a neutral or public location, choose a space that is conducive to conducting an interview and that has a minimal amount of distractions and audible noise. If conducting an interview remotely during school hours, try and locate a quiet space, classroom or other area to use so that your subject can both hear you as well as be heard themselves.
- If communicating remotely or conducting an in-person interview, practice your questions beforehand so that you can be ready to interact with your subject and engage them with any followup questions. It’s perfectly acceptable to bring a list of your questions along with you, but try to not simply read off the page as you would read a grocery list. Your interview subject has made this time available for you, make the most of it!
- If you are seeking direct quotes from your interview subject, make sure you have a way to record them. Avoid asking your interview subjects to repeat themselves or to talk slower. Never attempt to take down lengthy quotations in long-hand.
- Finally, know that your interview subject has made his/her time available because he/she is interested in your subject, but, more so, in you. Talking to experts or authorities in their field can be intimidating, but realize that your interview subject would not have accepted your request for an interview if he/she first did not want to help. Remember: you are acting as an informal representative of your school and your state NHD program. Do your very best!
Note that NHD does not maintain or necessarily endorse any of these sites, and is not responsible for their content:
How to Prepare for and Conduct Interviews
Oral History Association
Library of Congress American Folklife Center Lesson Plans and Classroom Materials
Library of Congress American Folklife Center Interview Guidef
Columbia Center for Oral History
Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media Research and Tools
National World War II Museum Oral History Guidelines
Oral History Collections
Find more by searching for “oral history collections” or by using key words related to the individual(s) you want to research.
National History Day Interviews: Encouraging Our Youngest Historians
November 12, 2015
By Beth Marsh and Dana Schaffer
Across the country middle school and high school students are learning about the historical process through their participation in National History Day. The theme for their projects this year is “Exploration, Encounter, Exchange in History.” Started in 1974, National History Day is a year-long academic program that introduces students to the study of history by having them conduct original research and create projects that range from papers and exhibits to performances, documentaries, and websites. Students then enter their projects in local and state/affiliate History Day competitions. Top-ranking students from the state/affiliate competitions are then selected to participate in the national contest in College Park, Maryland, each June.
For most, these projects are the students’ first experience researching and creating historical work using both primary and secondary sources. They are introduced to the skills of distinguishing between primary and secondary sources, evaluating sources, and placing those sources in a broader context. As part of this process, many students reach out to people outside their schools who are experts on their chosen topic—often historians such as yourself.
To address some of the questions that students and teachers have about incorporating interviews into their projects, National History Day recently held a Google+ Hangout featuring executive director Cathy Gorn and deputy director Kim Fortney joined by the National World War II Museum’s student programs coordinator Collin Makamson and curator/content specialist Kim Guise. Gorn dispelled the pervasive myth that interviews are required for National History Day projects, reminding participants that interviews might increase the quality of an entry, but only when done well and used effectively. She encouraged teachers to help their students determine whether an interview is needed for the project, and if so, who is appropriate to interview—a historian, or expert on the topic, or someone who was present at the time of the topic. She stressed that historians do not interview other historians and that students should instead consider effective primary source oral histories. Makamson and Guise highlighted the importance of building knowledge of the topic’s context before approaching an interviewee. Fortney offered some helpful tips and resources for students, including an etiquette checklist for requesting and conducting interviews.
Students participating in National History Day may seek you out after they have refined their topic and begun their research, approaching you with specific questions that relate to their research. Others may come to you with very broad questions, in some cases not having done any secondary research before reaching out. While neither the AHA, nor the OAH, nor NHD advocate that you take on these broad questions, we do recommend that you take a few moments and help them instead frame questions they should be asking in their research—guiding them through the historical research process. National History Day is about gaining content knowledge, teaching critical thinking, conducting research, and improving writing skills, but it is also about building the self-esteem and confidence of participants as well as their love of and engagement with history.
If you would like to get more involved with your local National History Day program there are many ways to participate. Affiliates frequently need judges at both the local and state competitions. The time commitment is not great, but the students at these competitions are often very excited that history professionals from their area have come out to hear about and offer feedback on their projects. These interactions, albeit brief, give them a very real sense of validation for what is often their first attempt at “doing history.”
Beth Marsh is the director of membership and program development at the Organization of American Historians. Dana Schaffer is the associate director at the American Historical Association. Both have volunteered with National History Day for several years and are currently serving on the National History Day Advisory Council.
A sample letter to request an interview with a primary source
A sample letter to request an interview with a historian or other secondary source
A sample release form for interviews