What is an Oral History Interview?:
An oral history interview is a conversation, conducted either virtually or in person, between a researcher and a person they have selected for their knowledge of a topic. The interviewee might have first-hand knowledge of a topic because they lived through, witnessed, or reported on an event. For example, a researcher interested in food rationing that occurred in World War II might interview someone whose family purchased food with rationing coupons at that time. This is a primary source interview, often called an “oral history” or “first-person narrative.”
Sometimes the interviewee is someone with significant knowledge about a topic but who did not experience it first-hand, such as a historian of World War II with expertise about food rationing. This would be a secondary source interview.
Historians do NOT conduct secondary source interviews. When researching for and creating your NHD project, you are a historian. Therefore, you should NOT conduct any secondary interviews.
Why are primary source interviews better than secondary source interviews?
The central piece of a National History Day® project is your analysis. While scholars (or other secondary source authors) provide essential information, what they would tell you in an interview would almost certainly be available in their written work—both factual and interpretative. Further, your goal is not to analyze scholars’ perspectives. Your goal is to analyze the experiences and perspectives of those who experienced the event first-hand. It is those perspectives and stories that interviews are intended to provide.
To Interview or Not to Interview:
We’ve already established that you should NOT conduct secondary source interviews. Interviews are NOT required for an NHD project nor will they necessarily strengthen it! In fact, including interviews (especially secondary source ones) that provide information that you could access elsewhere can decrease a project’s quality by making it look like you did not read widely enough to find the information in existing scholarship.
For more information on primary versus secondary source interviews, watch this video:
When carefully chosen and well incorporated, primary source interviews can improve a project’s analysis, and thus, its quality. To decide whether or not to conduct a primary source interview, please take the following steps:
1. Complete your background research using secondary books, articles, and reputable online sources so that you have a comprehensive understanding of the historical context and the details of the actual event. For more information on each of these, go to the NHD Tips page.
2. Determine what primary sources are accessible to you. A few examples are newspaper articles, video clips, and diary entries. Another are interviews/first-person narratives/oral histories. Until recently, these were extremely difficult to find online. However, thousands have been digitized over the last few years. A few examples are linked at the bottom of this page.
Tip: Search using the terms “oral history” and “first-person narrative” in addition to “interview” to yield more results.
3. After you have completed steps 1 and 2, ask yourself what information or viewpoints are still missing from your research. If you couldn’t find primary source interviews online and you believe that one could provide a unique perspective or fill in a gap that couldn’t be filled in another way, you can now begin identifying potential interviewees.
Identifying and Contacting Potential Interviewees:
If you decide that a primary source interview would strengthen your project in a meaningful way (in other words, it would provide information that you cannot get anywhere else), the next step is identifying potential interviewees.
Sometimes, it is clear whom you should contact. For instance, if you’re researching how someone in your city participated in a major court case in the 1990s and that person is reachable, they may be someone you want to talk to. However, the answer is often less evident. For example, if you are researching a mass movement involving many unstudied individuals. In this type of situation, you could consider contacting an organization (such as a museum or community center) that has connections to participants.
Most often, your initial outreach will be via email. After locating the correct contact information, you can begin to carefully craft your initial note.
Tip: Sometimes, even if you are contacting the interviewee themselves, the email address or phone number will be for a representative of that person—often, a secretary or another administrator.
The following are important practices to adhere to when reaching out to either an organization or an individual (regardless of the context):
1. Begin with a formal address and proper title. For example, “Dear Ms. Jones.”
2. Make sure to use proper grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
3. Remember to explain what NHD is, the yearly theme (if necessary), and the nature of your project.
4. Demonstrate that you have a thorough knowledge of your topic. You can do this by describing why you want to interview them. What perspective/unique insights can they provide? How will these contributions strengthen your project as a whole?
5. If you are reaching out to an interviewee directly, ask for dates that are at least one week in the future and provide an estimated length for the interview (suggestion: 20–30 minutes). Determine in advance whether a difference in time zone exists between you and your interviewee and provide a time zone.
Example: “I live in Seattle, and I see that you’re in St. Louis. Are you available between 3:30 and 5:30 pm Central time on Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday of next week (February 8th, 9th, or 10th)?”
6. Proofread your email. Ask your teacher or another adult to check it as well.
7. Stay safe. Copy your teacher or parent/guardian and let the interviewee know that an adult will accompany you to the interview (if in-person) or sit in online.
8. If you receive a response, write back right away. If the answer is “no,” thank the person for their time and consideration of your question. If it’s “yes,” then confirm a time, date, and location.
Preparing for Your Interview
After scheduling and confirming your upcoming interview, it’s time to prepare.
Here are key steps to take and principles to adhere to as you prepare for and conduct your interview:
1. Write your questions out in advance. Think about why you wanted to interview this person and consider what questions would provide responses that would be most helpful.
Tip: Usually, these are open-ended questions rather than “yes” or “no” ones. For example, if you’re interviewing someone who was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, you might ask them to talk about their specific motives for objecting and how those compared with those of their compatriots. This type of question encourages personal and in-depth stories that can substantially strengthen your analysis.
2. 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.
3. If your interviewee requests a copy of your questions in advance of the interview, please supply them.
4. Ask for permission to record in advance—you do not want any surprises at the interview or to ask the interviewer to repeat themselves as you try to write out their quotes. Doing any of these is disrespectful and will make you appear unprepared.
5. Choose a space that is conducive to conducting an interview and that has minimal distractions. If conducting an interview remotely during school hours, try to locate a quiet space so that you can hear your interviewee and they can hear you.
6. Send a polite reminder confirmation a day or two before your scheduled interview.
7. If you are meeting in person, research the directions and allow extra time for traffic, parking, security, etc.. Also plan to bring a trusted adult, such as a parent or teacher, with you, and let your interviewee know that you will be doing so.
8. Practice your questions beforehand so that you are ready to interact with and engage your interviewee with any follow-up 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 interviewee has made this time available for you, so make the most of it!
9. Call or arrive promptly at the scheduled time, and end when you said you would or earlier.
10. At the end of the call or visit, thank your interviewee verbally. Offer to share your finished project after the contest.
11. Write and send a thank-you note within 24 hours.
12. If the interviewee expressed interest in seeing your finished project, send it after the contest. If you are creating an exhibit, offer to send images of it.
13. Finally, Remember: you are representing both your school and NHD. Do your very best!
External Resources on Primary Source Interviews:
Select Online Databases:
Oral Histories and Interviews at the Center for Legislative Archives
Oral History Association (Provides links to over 50 digital collections)
American West Center Oral Histories
Museum of African American History and Culture Oral History Initiative
UCLA Center for Oral History Research
World War II Museum Oral History Guidelines
Library of Congress American Folklife Center Guide to Recorded Interviews