Table of Contents

The Oral Interview

By Libby Ginsburg

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Protection: In some cases, you might want to prepare a statement which the subject will sign allowing you to use the interview with impunity for whatever purposes.

Equipment needed

A small cassette sound recorder of good quality is better than a video as transcribing will be much easier when you seek to print the interview. The recorder should accommodate a jack and extension cord so that you can use an electrical outlet and not be dependent on a battery. The recorder should be of good quality and should be clearly heard when the tape runs out and needs to be turned over or replaced. Tapes should be of good quality and record for an hour on each side. Take extra tapes and test the recorder and the tape before starting the interview

A pad to make notes.

Time and Place

Allow for at least 1˝ to 2 hours at time for the interview. Choose a quiet, comfortable place without outside noise interference and make the interviewee feel at ease. Position the interviewee at right angles to the interviewer with the recorder facing the interviewee preferably on a low table such as a coffee table. If necessary, raise the recorder to the level of the interviewee.

Setting the tone of the interview

Devote adequate time and use open-ended questions. Allow about twenty minutes during the initial questioning period for the interviewee to expand on answers during the early interview and to overcome any resistance. Keep a record on your note pad to follow up on particulars. For example, if the interviewee reports a birth in a small town, follow up later for the exact name and location. Save sensitive questions for the end of the interview.


If possible, have interviewee fill out a simple questionnaire before or after the interview which will include the following:
 Date of interview
 Subject’s name, address, phone
 Mother’s name, place of birth
 Father’s name, place of birth
 Sibling’s names (in birth order), phone numbers
 Synagogue or Jewish organization family was affiliated with
 Schools subject attended
 Year graduated
 Work history

 Sample questions (they should be open-ended)

 Early years:
 What do you remember about your grandparents?
 What do you remember about your parents?
 What do you remember about your brothers, sisters?
 What hereditary traits are there in your family?
 What were your family’s religious practices?
 What were your family’s circumstances when you were born?
 Where did your family live and why did they move?
 What are your pre-school memories?

bulletFormal education: grade school conditions, teachers, friends; high school activities, achievement, special friends. What advanced education did you have?
bulletCommunity: Characteristics of your community – size, economic activities
bulletHistoric events during your lifetime – major epidemics, catastrophes, family events.
bulletHumorous experiences.
bulletSocial life – youth groups, etc.
bulletReligious activities – attendance at synagogue, religious school.
bulletMilitary service – why did you enter the military? What branch? Basic or specialized
 training? Combat duty? Feelings about this experience, conflicts with standards?
bulletMarriage and family – your child rearing philosophy, rules, roles of mother and father?
bulletFamily traditions? (folklore, superstitions, legends, traditions)


Copyright © November 2002. All Rights Reserved

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