UCLA Labor Center

Oral History Strategies

Research Preparation

A thorough research approach identifies the objective of the study, research questions, the significance of the study, and most appropriate research design.  Below are questions that can help orient the development of your oral history research:

View research preparation guidelines

Selection of Recording Equipment

An important component in executing your oral history project is thoroughly understanding your ability to utilize and secure recording equipment, especially in considerate of your research design.  Below are research questions that can help guide your decision making:

View recording preparation guidelines

The Interview Process

Researchers conduct oral history interviews for a variety of purposes: to create archival records, for individual research, for community and institutional projects, and for publications and media productions. While these principles and standards provide a general framework for guiding professional conduct, their application may vary according to the nature of specific oral history projects. Regardless of the purpose of the interviews, oral history should be conducted in the spirit of critical inquiry and social responsibility and with a recognition of the interactive and subjective nature of the enterprise.

With the preceding in mind, the following is the researcher’s responsibility to conduct ethical research:

Responsibility to Interviewees

Responsibility to the Public and Profession

Responsibility for Sponsoring and Archiving Institutions

Oral History in Action

Donde Haiga un Trabajador Explotado, Ahí Estaré Yo: Justice for Janitors’ Workers, Organizers, and Allies

This series documents the Justice for Janitors movement in Los Angeles from the 1980s to the present day. Justice for Janitors is a labor organization of the Service Employees International Union that has historically sought to improve the working conditions and bargaining power of workers in the janitorial services industry. The movement has taken various forms in different cities, with Los Angeles serving as the largest center of activity. By including interviews with labor organizers, politicians, and rank-and-file members, the series aims to offer a comprehensive picture of the Justice for Janitors movement in Los Angeles. In addition to documenting Justice for Janitors, the series also explores many of the participants’ experiences in Central America before immigrating to the U.S. and interviewees’ involvement in other facets of the labor movement in the U.S. and Central America. This project was generously supported by Arcadia funds.

Click here to listen to Rosa Beltran tell her story

Click here to listen to Peter Olney tell his story

Click here to listen to Manuela Ramos tell her story

Research Preparation

This oral history project exemplifies thoughtful preparation prior to collecting data.  You can download the Interview History document to better understand the conceptualization of the project:

Interview History

Responsibility to Interviewees

Per ethical guidelines, interviewees were informed about the purpose of the research project and the ways in which their information would be utilized.  Below is an example of interviewee follow-up, clarifying the oral history project.

Example Invitation Letter

Responsibility to Interviewees

Per ethical guidelines, interviewees were informed about the interview process, the varying degrees of consent regarding their interview, and the way in which their identity and information would be protected.  Below is a sample script utilized for this research project, providing such information.


Interview Best Practices

In order to best understand the historical narrative, the researcher compiled a ‘name list’ to record every person, institution, place, etc. related to the interviewees’ historical analysis.  Below is an example taken from this research project.

Interview List

Data Analysis

The researchers’ utilized the topics discussed within the interview as a starting point to develop themes and codes.  This inductive and deductive coding process is common within the narrative analysis.  The table of contents exemplifies this type of coding process.

Table of Contents

Additional Resources

If you want to learn more about the oral history research approach, best practices, and read diverse presentations of oral history, check out the identified resources, and download the following materials (we’ve even provided brief descriptions and citations!):

Oral History and Hard Times

Frisch, M. (1990). Oral History and Hard Times: A Review Essay In A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (pp. 5-13). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

In this chapter, the author uses Hard Times, a compilation of stories detailing the lives of 150 individuals during the 1930s, to demonstrate the implications of oral history and how oral history can be read or misread. In doing so, researchers can develop a critical analysis of cultural, historical processes and the formation of memory. This chapter is useful for breaking down how experience, memory, and history come together; and as a result, it allows readers to to have a more objective view on formation of history and memory.

Oral History and Class Consciousness

Frisch, M. (1990). Oral History and the Presentation of Class Consciousness: The New York Times v. The Buffalo Unemployed In A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (pp. 59-80). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

In this chapter, the author demonstrates the process in which oral history becomes public documents by using the Times article detailing the unemployment situation in Buffalo, NY as a case study. Through the process, the author highlights the struggle for different individuals to see class consciousness in oral history. Additionally, the author reminds people to be cognizant of the storyteller’s reflective process of telling their experience, the social, spatial, and historical context of the experience that is being told, and how the audience’s understanding/perceptions of the storyteller’s experience is developed. This chapter is useful for understanding the process in which transcribing oral history to public information/consumption.

Learning to Listen

Anderson, K. and Jack, D.C. (1991). Learning to Listen: Interview Techniques and Analyses In S.B. Gluck and D. Patai (Eds.). Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History (pp. 11-26). Howick, London: Routledge.

In this chapter titled, Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History, the authors provide techniques researchers can employ when they are conducting oral history interviews. Oral history interviews provide an avenue to generate knowledge about particular communities, especially if these communities have been historically muted. Subsequently, interviews provide the opportunity for the interviewee to tell their own story in their own terms. The authors utilize own experiences in interviewing women to present what researchers should keep in mind when conducting interviews. First, researchers must ask whose story the interview is asked to tell, who interprets the story, and with what theoretical frameworks will the researcher employ to analyze experiences. At the same time, researchers should attend to each individual experience and wait to make preliminary observations until later. Additionally, researchers should acknowledge the influences that shape what they hear and interpret. 

What Makes Oral History Different

Portelli. A.  (2006). What Makes Oral History Different In R. Perks and A. Thomson (Eds.), The Oral History Reader (pp. 32-42). New York, NY: Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group.

In this chapter, the author responds to criticism of oral history. In doing so, Portelli explains the strengths of oral history and highlights the valuable information a researcher can only get by using oral history. The chapter is useful for researchers because it informs researchers what other aspects of the oral testimonies they should make note of.

Chinese Americans

Yung, J. (2004). “A Bowlful of Tears” Revisited: The Full of Lee Puey You’s Immigration Experience at Angel Island. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 25(1), 1-22. Retrieved from https://muse.jhu.edu/journals/frontiers/v025/25.1yung.html.

In this article, Yung recalls her experience interviewing an Angel Island detainee, Lee Puey You.  Yung’s first interview with Lee was to document the story of Chinese detention at Angel Island during the exclusion period in Island. Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940.  Because Yung was a novice oral historian and being cognizant of the possible psychological scars from her experience, Yung ended her first interview with Lee with only a partial picture of Lee’s circumstances of her immigration in the United States, Yung again interviewed Lee for the docudrama, Carved in Silence; Yung learns to be persistent and analytical in her line of questioning. After Lee’s death, Yung compares the interviews she previously had with Lee with the interview Lee had with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). In doing so, Yung learned that a researcher should not take the interviewee’s story at face value; a researcher should validate one’s story. This article is helpful to understand that we should ask open-ended and follow-up questions, we should consider the racial, class, gender dynamics of not only the event we are looking at but also the interviewee’s life, and if possible verify what your interviewee has said in the interview.