The Benefits of Oral Histories

Over the past year during my various trips to the United States I’ve been fortunate enough to conduct seven oral histories with former members of the Carter administration. Oral history is a common form of research and I am luckier than some of my fellow PhD students in having the ability to do this. The experience of being able to sit down and speak with numerous individuals whom I have read about and who have been present at some of the most historic moments of the Carter presidency has truly been an honor but its value to my project has been invaluable. I happen to believe oral histories can play a crucial role in one’s research and I hope to set out some do’s and do not do’s and some of the benefits I’ve experienced so far.


DON’T…ASSUME THAT THE PEOPLE WON’T BE INTERESTED: When I first started this process I did not think for a minute any of my interviewees would even consider taking part in an interview with me given their stature and I guess we all suffer from the ‘I’m just a student’ complex at some point or another. However within twenty minutes of sending out my first request, I had an acceptance. Within a few days, I had two. Reflecting on those days I think I did those interviewees a disservice in thinking that they wouldn’t be interested. On the contrary, overall all those I’ve interviewed have been very helpful. One even gave me a lift to the metro station while others got back in touch later on giving me advice about who to contact next. Although I’ve only ever once been offered a cup of tea or coffee but I think that’s a British thing. Point being, don’t be scared of asking, most people are very forth coming and willing to help out.

PRO: Also don’t be put off by a person’s stature or reputation. I’ve sent invites to two former Secretaries of Defense and had replies from both with one taking part in a telephone interview. Having a former Secretary of Defense give you there time is an immense honour and some their insights are highly significant plus having that footnote at the bottom of a page is huge.

CON: It goes without saying that oral histories can be very subjective and the participants can be very biased although I must confess I have no reason to believe the people I have interviewed have been wrong in anything they told me. But it’s important to keep an open mind. So try and backup what they’ve told you with evidence. Sometimes archival materials can do just that which is a PRO in itself in that you’re adding substance to your argument.

DO…RESEARCH BEFOREHAND: Prior to interviewing it’s important that you do your research prior. If anything this shows the interviewee that you are well schooled in your research field and that you know what you are talking about. Similarly, do your research on the people you’re interviewing. What did they do? What is their background? Etc. In one meeting, my interviewee bemoaned how assumed knowledge about his background. Fortunately for me, I had read another oral history where the interviewer had wrongly made this assumption and was told so. Similarly, come prepared with questions. Don’t think them up on the spot. Also take into account what they’re saying, listen carefully. I’ve found that a lot of questions I’ve asked have actually resulted from some of the things they told me.

PRO: In my second interview, when discussing the 1979 Iranian Revolution, my interviewee remarked: “A lot of people claim that they knew that this was going to happen. So whenever somebody tells me that they say “Oh well everyone knew what was coming”, I say “Where did you see that in writing? Did you write that down in any place? Did you write that down in any place if you’re a reporter or a political analyst or whatever you are or whether you are working for some other government or not? Did you actually say that?” Herein lies one of the benefits of doing oral histories. It allows participants, like the ones I interviewed, to set the record straight. Where statements or stories have been made that lacked accuracy, it allows people to tell their side of the story and dispel myths. Sometimes even the most innocuous quotes are beneficial. One interviewee talked about literally walking across a street but in regards to my own research it was an incredibly important statement.

DON’T…LET YOUR INTERVIEWEES TELL THINGS YOU ALREADY KNOW: The interviewee doesn’t know what you know, so let them know what you do not. For example, three interviewees have all mentioned the same story to me. It was a meeting in early 1979 at the White House between Carter and some State Department employees. This point relates to doing research beforehand but I know this meeting took place, I’ve read it in books and I’ve heard them mention it in other oral histories but it usually comes up. Clearly that meeting was important to them but I know what was said and what happened. It’s important to gauge their emotions around the meeting but ask them something about the meeting that they’ve never been asked. Clearly this is a critical episode so try and expand your knowledge of it but avoid getting into a narrative of things you already know.

DON’T…ASK SILLY QUESTIONS: Recently I read about an interviewer asking Henry Kissinger where he got his suit from. Kissinger then promptly replied that the interview was now over and left. If you interview a former U.S National Security Advisor you do not ask him questions like that. I’ve found some of my interviewees to be very businesslike at first and they don’t engage in chit chat that much but as time progresses during the interview they usually become more relaxed and at ease. Some have been incredibly friendly from the get go but I would always recommend approaching things in a professional manner.

DO…MAKE SURE YOU GET AN IDEAL LOCATION: All my locations have been appropriate for my interviews however sometimes people can recommend places which are not good for interviewing, cafes, restaurants, bars etc. where the background noise can interfere with your recording. Also make sure you have your interviewee pinned down to a date. In one of my experience, I took a day flight to Chapel Hill, North Carolina and turned up to my interviewees’ office only to find he wasn’t there. Luckily he was tracked down and was very apologetic but just a brief email or letter in the week prior just to make sure they remember.

DON’T…TAKE REJECTION PERSONALLY: You are bound to have some rejections however in my experience some of these rejections have actually been very pleasant. One individual wrote back saying he was unavailable but told me to keep in touch as he was very interested in the subject while another responded advising me to look up certain chapters in books that maybe helpful. The best reply I’ve had thus far came from a relative of Cyrus Vance who declined an interview but pointed me in the direction of some materials and then at the end of the email replied that she was very happy that I was doing work on Vance and that he would have been very proud that scholars were still interested in his career. For me personally, it was a very touch and confidence boosting moment.

Luckily for me, my interviewees were very kind, open and honest during their interviews. It was a real honour and privilege to meet with them and hear their experiences and their thoughts. I appreciate the fact that the people I interviewed were well known having served in government and had been in the public eye but other historians or researchers may have issues with contacting individuals, particularly if they were not well known or little is known about them. Nevertheless, I would greatly encourage any other historians whether at undergraduate level, Masters level or PhD level to utilise this kind of research. I did not think I would be so lucky to get these interviews and while some may agree others will decline an interview. However at the end of the day, shy bairns get nowt as they say up north. All you can do is ask. It could be a crucial for your research!


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