"The Natural Approach to Oral History Interviews and the Two Critical Questions You Must ALWAYS Ask" by Robert Ragan (Part 1)

Back in November 1997, I spent a very special day with my Dad on his pontoon boat. We've spent lots of hours with family riding up and down the St. Johns River in Northeast Florida on that boat (see "Papa’s Boat Day Get-a-Way" page).

That day with fresh batteries and a tape recorder, I sat down to record the story of his life–his oral history. It rained a little bit, we were bumping around the boat, and there were boats passing by making noise, but it didn't matter. It added to the charm of that tape.

Answering those questions and sharing all that information is taxing, so after an hour and a half we started to wind down. But before we stopped, I made SURE that I asked the two most important questions that you should ask when you sit down to do an oral history interview with anyone. Whether you do it on cassette tapes or video, you should always ask two critical questions.

One of those critical questions is: "How Do You Feel About Your Children?"

So, I asked him about us kids one by one. He was delighted to answer and went into detail about our personalities, strengths, and talents. He was full of pride and expressed his love for his children–and had expressed his feelings about his family all through the tape.

It sure was a great day and he said it was an honor for him to answer those questions and he had fun doing it.

You know, there were more questions that I wanted to ask him and I meant to do it. To be honest with you, I procrastinated. Sure, we talked plenty in the future but I never officially sat down to do it again. But I made sure that I asked those two critical questions.

What’s that second question, you’re wondering? I'll tell you in a minute. But let me tell you what happened… In September 2003, one evening after a perfectly normal day, Dad passed away from a heart attack. Suddenly, unexpectedly, he was gone.

After a few weeks, I was ready to listen to the tapes. I found them and as I held the two tapes in my hand and looked at them, I realized that they were priceless treasures. You could not put a monetary value on them.

My brother and sister didn't know that I had done the interview, so as I made copies and was able to give the tapes to them–knowing that Dad had expressed his feelings towards them and had also answered that second question, which I call the hard question–what a fantastic gift to give to them. It was truly appreciated.

I want you to be able to do something special like this for your family but I'd like for you to see something a little bit different about this topic than the normal stuff you see. Instead, I'd like for you to discover a more natural way to approach oral histories. Also, this will help you as you think about doing your autobiography.

Dad started the oral history tradition in our family when I was ten years old. We kids didn't know that. To us it meant, “Aw, Dad… Not again!”

Back in 1970, Dad used a cassette tape recorder to capture my brother and sister and I on tape.

He has my sister singing "The Bubble-gum Bandit" when she was four years old and has the family talking on July 4, 1976 - the 200 year anniversary of the USA. But, most of the tape was of Dad asking us kids, "What did Santa Claus bring you for Christmas?" at the end of December or beginning of January. There are also mentions of big events that happened during the previous year.

There a few years missing, but Dad did a good job at keeping this tradition going. As you listen, you can hear our voices changing and discover how we were growing up as we listed the type of gifts that we received and the things that we said.

Towards the very end of the tape we are discussing engagement rings that "Santa" brought as time flew by, we grew up, and moved out on our own.

A few years ago while laughing, turning slightly red and looking wistfully into the past, we played our family tape together for the first time in many years.

A copy was dubbed and given to all involved - and a cassette tape bought in 1970 for around 25 cents, is now a priceless treasure.

Dad was not a genealogist. He was just keeping a recording of his children as they grew up. But it was a natural, informal approach that worked well.

 The Natural Approach to an Oral History Interview

I've discovered that when you sit and talk with anyone or with any group of people for an oral history interview, it always takes interesting twists and turns that you didn't expect.

You've got to have a very flexible plan. For example: Here is a link to some standard oral history questions. Take a look at this Web page: Oral History Interview Questions and Topics.

Hopefully, you know better than to sit down with someone and go down this list and ask him or her these questions like a checklist. Pretend I am reading this to you in my rote and mechanical “robot voice”:

-How tall are you?

-What color was your hair as a young child and then as an adult?

-What color are your eyes?

-As you see it, what are the biggest problems that face our nation and how do you think they could be solved?

These are not bad questions. They can be a springboard for good ideas; but think about your situation. You've asked and been granted the chance to sit down and talk with a relative or person who is willing to open up and share personal information with you. So instead of focusing on your list, you should keep these things in mind:

  • Their lives and circumstances are unique. If you have any questions on a list to ask them, it would be nice if you have customized them to the individual and given special thought as to what you will ask. A short well thought out list is better than a long general list.
  • They have agreed to talk with you so they have probably been thinking about their memories more than usual. Most likely, they will already have things that they want to talk about.
  • After an hour or so, people start to wear down. Have you asked the questions that you really wanted to ask? There is an art to “moving along the time line” as you interview someone.
Continued in Part 2