Recording oral histories with veterans
Oral history interviews are a great technique to learn about wartime experiences through the eyes of a veteran or someone else who remembers the war. If done correctly, you will create an invaluable resource for future researchers to use. Once you know the basics, you can conduct your own oral history interviews.
Veterans' stories captured by interview
At the Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA), we have a team of historians whose work it is to meet with Australian veterans and gather their stories. We share those stories in books, films and videos, and through this website.
Military oral history refers to a method of recording the experiences and perspectives of participants of conflicts and military events, in their own voice.
Oral history is captured and preserved for the benefit of future generations, in a way which preserves the voices, accents and vocabularies of the individuals interviewed.
You will find archives of oral military history at state, federal and private institutions in Australia, as well as in Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The value of oral history is to gather information from deeply personal perspectives, much of which cannot be found in the written sources.
A guide to veteran interviews
Our book, Reflections: Capturing Veterans' Stories, serves as a starting point for teachers and students planning to undertake oral history interviews with veterans.
How to conduct an interview
Understand your role
Your job as the interviewer is to be:
- a careful listener and observer
- impartial and non-judgmental
Speak at little as possible when the interview is taking place. Try not to talk about yourself when recording.
Show the interviewee that you're listening by using good body language:
- sit upright
- maintain friendly eye contact
- nod or smile whenever appropriate
The interviewee will be more willing to share their history with you if they can see that you are interested. Even if you do not agree with the interviewee's point of view, be respectful of their opinion and do not challenge it.
Set up the space
Arrive on time and dress appropriately.
Be prepared with everything you might need:
- voice recorder or video camera
- power cord
- extra digital storage
- script of questions
- any paperwork, such as permission forms
- pen and notebook
Visiting the interviewee
If you are visiting your subject, let them show you where they would like to sit during the interview.
Make sure you sit at a comfortable distance from each other. Not too close so as to invade their space. If you sit too far away, you might:
- need to raise your voice
- lose eye contact
- make a poorer quality voice recording
Be aware of potential noises that may spoil the quality of your recording and minimise distractions by:
- closing doors and windows
- taking landline telephones off the hook
- turning off computer sounds and mobile phones
Hosting the interviewee
Prepare the interview space before the person arrives.
You will need two well-spaced comfortable chairs and a table for your notes and voice recorder.
Offer your guest a cup of coffee or tea or a glass of water when they arrive. Let them know where the bathroom is in case they might need it later.
Testing your equipment
Set up your voice recorder or video recorder. Check that it's working properly.
Different types of voice recorders include:
- handheld digital voice recorders
- laptop computer software
- smartphone apps
Place the voice recording device on a flat surface between you and the interviewee. Make sure you can see it clearly. From time to time, check that it's still working during the interview.
If using a video camera, try to frame as much of the person's face as possible. Be mindful that they might move around in their chair quite a bit during the interview.
Try to use a plain background and light the person's face from the front. Don't film the person in front of a window or other light source.
Set up the camera to one side so it's less noticeable. You want the interviewee to feel like they are talking to you, not to the camera.
Introducing the interview
Make sure the person understands:
- why you are conducting the interview (purpose)
- what the recording might be used for (use)
- any forms they should sign (eg permission or waiver)
Go through any forms you have asked the interviewee to sign, such as a permission form or waiver. Make sure they understand that they are in control of the process. They do not have to talk about anything they don’t want to.
Before you get started, ask the person if they have any questions.
Conduct the interview
Be mindful that your subject is volunteering their time to help you with your project. Show them a great deal of respect. Even if you know them quite well, try to act professionally and conduct a formal interview.
If you both have time, start with a cup of coffee or tea.
When you are both comfortable, start recording the interview.
Introducing the topic
Introduce the interview with your name, the interviewee's name, the date and location, and the purpose of the interview. Recording these details will help future listeners to:
- understand why the interview was conducted
- make a decision about the reliability of the information
Starting with context
Start with simple biographical questions. This will get the interviewing flowing and make the interviewee more comfortable. The responses will help to provide valuable context.
Asking deeper questions
Then move on to more in-depth and open-ended questions. These questions encourage exploration and usually start with:
These types of questions are good for drawing out feelings and personal experiences.
Ask each question one at a time so you don't overwhelm the interviewee. They'll usually respond with long answers.
Give the interviewee time to tell their story, especially if you're discussing a difficult or sensitive subject. Don't fill pauses with new questions. They might be taking a moment to reflect or think about what to say next.
Don't be afraid to go off-script. Ask follow-up questions if you need more information or want to dig deeper into a response.
No interview ever goes according to plan. Don't worry if you stumble over your words or questions don't come out as you wanted them to.
As the interviewer, you need to be flexible. You might need to:
- take a moment to gather your thoughts
- consult your list of questions
- change the order of your questions
- investigate topics that come up unexpectedly
Don't interrupt the interviewee, or they might lose their train of thought. Write down any new questions that you want to ask, and wait for a natural break in the conversation to being them up.
Ask for the spelling of names and places as needed. This makes transcription and follow-up research much easier. It also makes sure that your information is accurate.
Make sure to explain any visual cues or objects that are used by the interviewee. This will help future listeners.
Conclude the session
Keep your eye on the time. People are busy, and the interviewee might become tired after an hour. If the interview is still in progress, ask the person whether they feel comfortable to continue. Be aware of the person's body language and energy levels.
Politely bring the interview to an end if either of you feel noticeably tired or the interview is slowing down. You can always schedule a follow-up interview if you need to.
End the interview on a positive note and allow the interviewee to have the last word. Ask them if they have any questions before you finish.
Pack up your equipment and any paperwork, and leave the space as tidy as you found it.
Offer to send the person a digital copy of the interview once you have transferred it to your computer. You could post them a USB or email a link to a cloud storage location.
Example of an oral history
Listen to Brigadier John McNeil (33 mins) as a member of the 5th Light Horse Regiment, Gallipoli and Palestine, interviewed by Major Aylmer Campbell Robertson.