Elizabeth M. Bentley

For me genealogical research is only a reference point for the oral family history interviews which I do. Oral history interviewing is deeply rewarding and satisfying in many ways. I particularly like these comments by Donald L. Ritchie, Associate Historian, United States Senate Office, and former president of the Oral History Association:

"Oral history may well be the twentieth century's substitute for the written memoir. In exchange for the immediacy of diaries or correspondence, the retrospective interview offers a dialog between the participant and the informed interviewer. Having prepared sufficient preliminary research, interviewers can direct the discussion into areas long since "forgotten," or no longer considered of consequence. . . . The quality of the interview, its candidness and its depth, generally will depend as much on the interviewer as the interviewee, and the confidence and rapport between the two adds a special dimension to the spoken memoir." [Footnote one]

"Interviewers represent a variety of disciplines and work either as part of a collective effort or individually. Regardless of their different interests or variety of their subjects, all interviewers share a common imperative: to collect memories while they are still available. Most oral historians feel an additional responsibility to make their interviews accessible for use beyond their own research needs." [Footnote two]

Here is another favorite quote, this one from William Fletcher who has written several very helpful books for non-professionals doing oral history interviews (he calls them Life History Interviewing:

"If you look beneath it, our interest in "roots" and in Life History Interviewing represents an intuitive response to a deeply felt need for a sense of personal and family continuity. We live in a hectic, rapidly changing, highly mobile world, where family have become physically and emotionally disconnected . . millions of people yearn to reconnect in some way with the continuity of their family's experience. This feeling of continuity was once taken for granted when three or four generations of a family lived close together, interacted, and passed on their traditions, values, stories, patterns of belief and feeling, and historical experiences to each successive generation. Now much of it has been lost." [Footnote three]

Fletcher also says:

(Life History Interviewing is) . . . . a tool to help all generations talk to one another. . . . an excuse to begin talking about some important things with older relatives, and perhaps to get to know them better. . . . Perhaps one person in ten thousand will ever actually write an autobiography, but virtually everyone can talk one, in his or her own words, to a sympathetic and interested listener." [Footnote four]

I think for myself that one of the nicest aspects of interviews with older members of a family is its effect upon other members of the family and the result which may come from the oral history interview process itself. Sometimes children are too close to their parents to appreciate aspects of their parents' lives. Interviewing can be a healing and a cleansing for family relationships. The interviews (and the oftentimes related task of going through old photos, letters and other memorabilia of a lifetime) can help the interviewee to bring a sense of closure and a new appreciation for various parts of their lives. A bonus for me is the enlarged understanding and respect which I gain for the lives of each of my interviewees, the decision points in their lives, and their choice of life style.




The two books and pamphlet which helped me the most in getting started were:

1. William Fletcher, RECORDING YOUR FAMILY HISTORY, A GUIDE TO PRESERVING ORAL HISTORY USING AUDIO AND VIDEO TAPE, Revised and Expanded, 1989, Ten Speed Press, PO Box 7123, Berkeley, CA, paperback, $14.95.

Fletcher has an exhaustive list of possible topics and questions to use in the oral interview. He also discusses equipment briefly.

2. Donald A. Ritchie, DOING ORAL HISTORY, 1995, Twayne Publishers, NY, paperback, $14.95.

This book discusses different kinds of oral history interviews, and has only a small chapter specifically devoted to family history interviews. However, it includes an extensive bibliography, and Ritchie emphasizes the importance of obtaining some kind release form signed before beginning interviews (one never knows how the eventual interview may want to be used). This is a protection to both interviewer and interviewee. Ritchie also stresses the importance of making interviews available for use by others.

3. GUIDELINES AND PRINCIPLES OF THE ORAL HISTORY ASSOCIATION, Pamphlet No. 3, Oral History Association, 1992. 1093 Broxton Avenue, #720, Los Angeles, CA 90024.

This is a succinct and valuable guide to social, legal, historical, and ethical issues pertinent for anyone conducting oral history interviews



Getting ready to interview the first several times took much more organization than I had anticipated, and I was nervous. Sometimes I had not seriously considered exactly how I was going to retrieve and use the information which I obtained in the interviews. In other words, would I want to transcribe each tape in its entirety, or only a portion of the tapes, or would the tape be used only as an oral history resource. Sometimes I had not adequately anticipated who might want a copy of the interview. If I felt the interview had a broader use than originally discussed, I want to help the interviewee understand and accept the change.. In another case, one set of interviews resulted in 11 hours of recording and I had to suggest alternatives to the original plan in order to accommodate the amount of material which I received.

Some of the things which help me prepare for an interview are and which are described more completely in any of the above publications are:

1. Preparing a list of questions and topics ahead of time. If you have time to do some research in the areas which you know may be discussed, it will help a lot to direct the questioning. Avoid questions which will elicit only a yes or no answer!

2. Making sure my equipment worked and that I knew how to use it. I have a tape recorder and a microphone which can be plugged into the recorder. I also have a pause button on the recorder. As suggested by others, I used 90 minute Type I audio cassettes (be sure the tapes have screws in corners and can be taken apart easily if the tape breaks).

3. Having a supply of good tapes (more than I thought I could use), and having them all labeled, i.e. TAPE ONE, MASTER, DATE _______ NAME ________. Following the advice of Mame Warren [Footnote five], Oral History Project, Washington and Lee University, I was careful to make a master copy of each tape immediately upon completion of the interview(s) and before listening to them.

4. Having a release form ready to be signed before beginning the interviews (issues here include copyright, who may use interview and how it may be used). A publication by John Neuenschwander, ORAL HISTORY AND THE LAW, 1993, Second edition, revised and enlarger, paper, 53 pages, $8.00, may be ordered through the website,

5. Establishing a quiet location for conducting the interview without interference from outside listeners and noise.

6. Planning to enjoy the interviews. and the stories of the interviewee!


A FINAL NOTE: I am deeply grateful for the offers of help and friendship and the open welcome I received from members of the Oral History Association. There may be a regional affiliate of the OHA near you. Again, the OHA website is:

Elizabeth Marple Bentley, January 15, 1997

Footnote one: Married to the Foreign Service, An Oral History of the American Diplomatic Spouse. Jewell Fenzi with Carl L. Nelson. Twayne Publishers. New York. 1994. ISBN 0-8057-9122-1.

From Foreword by Donald L. Ritchie, Series Editor, Senate Historical Office.

Footnote two: ibid.

Footnote three: Recording Your Family History, A Guide to Preserving Oral History with Video Tape, Audio Tape. William Fletcher. Dodd, Mead, and Company, New York, 1986. ISBN 0-396-08887-2 (paperback) or 0-396-08886-4, p. 2-3

Footnote four: ibid., p. 3

Footnote five: author of books including Then Again, Annapolis, 1900-1965. Time Exposures Limited, Annapolis, Maryland, 1990.

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