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A 'Do-It-Yourself' Oral History Primer

Oral Interview Basics/Required Documentation

Conducting oral history interviews and preparing them for submission to the U.S. Marine Corps History Division’s Oral History Program

The Marine Corps appreciates your interest in the History Division’s Oral History Program and your willingness to become involved. Whether you are submitting an interview of an active-duty Marine, a veteran, or embarking on a self-memoir project, there are often questions about what subject matter to cover in the interview, what procedures to follow, and what supporting paperwork is required. We hope to answer those questions here.

Please read the following information, even if you are not a first timer, as changes have been made, so that you fully understand the requirements for submitting an interview.  If you have questions, please contact the Oral History Program for additional information and guidance.

Required Forms

  • Summary Form
    • Interviews must be accompanied by an informative summary of the interview so that it can be accessioned into the Marine Corps oral history collection and be helpful to researchers.  This form is simply a means by which the interviewer records the, who, when, where, and most importantly, the contents of the interview.  A blank summary form can be downloaded from this site, filled out, and printed for submission with the interview.  If submitting your interview on a CD or DVD (the preferred mediums), download the summary form, fill it out, scan it, and submit it with the sound file of the interview.  Complete the fields with as much data as necessary.  Click here to download the standard Summary Form
  • Release
    • Unless the interviewee is on active duty, a release is required that bequeaths full ownership of the History Division’s copy of the interview and associated documents to the U.S. Marine Corps.  If submitting your interview on a CD you may also consider filling out the release form, have it signed, and scan it to your computer in order to submit it also with the CD that contains the sound file and summary form.  Click here to download the standard Release Form

Interview Medium and Format

  • Compact Disc (CD)
    • Submitting your interview as a digital recording and your supporting documents (summary and release) in the proper format on a CD is strongly encouraged.  Consider saving all files related to the interview to your computer hard drive so that together they can be burned to one CD at the same time.  The interview recording should be saved using a .wav file extension or wave file format (MP2 or MP3). (Note: There are many cheap file conversion software packages available on the internet that can be downloaded right to your computer).  Including biographical information of the individual (about one or two paragraphs normally) although not required is encouraged.  Photographs should be scanned at 400 dots per inch (dpi).  Altogether each part of your submitted CD/DVD should have files in the following formats: the interview should be a wave file (.wav), photographs (.tiff or jpeg), release form (Word, pdf or .tiff), and the summary form in Microsoft Word (.doc).

      When burning a CD, be sure to use CD creating software to make a “Data CD”.  Double check that all data was successfully transferred and that the CD can be read by other computers before submitting it.

  • Videotape

    • If videotaping an interview, if possible, please submit the recording on a data DVD.  Submit all supporting documentation on the DVD also or an accompanying CD.  We can accept VHS recordings but prefer DVD.  Otherwise, the very small oral history staff will have to convert the VHS to DVD.  Please follow all other procedures noted above. 

  • Cassette

    • The Oral History Office staff will have to convert any cassette recordings to a digital format and save it to CD so we strongly prefer that a digital format be used for sound files.  Please note: we cannot accept micro-cassettes of any length.


CONDUCTING THE INTERVIEW:

Preliminary Matters

When setting up the interview make sure you use a room that is quiet and a location where you are least likely to be disturbed.

Always - ALWAYS - begin your audio or video recording with the name of the interviewee, including a middle initial. Do not simply start talking. Spell the interviewee’s last name aloud on the recording, even if it’s as simple a name such as Smith or Brown (these are also spelled “Smyth” or “Browne”).  As a note, “Bill Jones” is not appropriate for historical records; use the full legal name of “William B. Jones,” instead.  Nicknames and call signs are fine for inclusion as long as the individual’s true name is provided at the outset.

Specify the date and location of the interview and your own name at the outset of the interview after naming the interviewee.  If interviewing an active duty service member, specify the member’s current unit, to include company, battalion, regiment and division or, if an aviator, similar sized units. DO NOT INCLUDE SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBERS or addresses. To do so breaches privacy or security restrictions.  If you have a second interview session, or if the initial session extends to a second recording, start the subsequent session in the same way. Recordings can get separated and, without this opening identification, may be lost or discarded due to lack of proper identification.

Make it clear to the interviewee that you do not want any CLASSIFIED information.  We cannot accept interviews containing CLASSIFIED information. 

Finally, we highly encourage that one-on-one interviews be conducted.  Multiple interviewers or interviewees create cross talk and make intelligible interpretation and transcription difficult, if not impossible. If a third party enters the room while you are interviewing, pause the recording.


Have a Plan

To be of value to historians, scholars and writers, an interview needs a coherent thread and focused questions. To simply begin talking or let the subject verbally wander is not a good method.  Just because your subject was in the Marine Corps does not make the interview history. The oral history program is not just looking for good “war stories.”  We desire interviews that not only document the human experience but are also a reliable source of primary source material of value to serious historical researchers. After opening questions covering the subject’s background (where a personal rapport is established and the interviewee is put at ease), endeavor to ask questions that lead the subject to pertinent portions of their Marine Corps experience. This requires thought and planning. One should have a basic understanding of the interviewee’s background and events in which they participated.  Review information that would enhance your situational awareness of the time and place pertinent to the interview.  Use written notes, consider providing a list of questions or topics you wish to ask about to the interviewee prior to the interview.    

Ask broad ended questions to address a topic:  “Tell me about boot camp.” Then ask follow-up or probing questions as they discuss the topic.  Be a careful listener and don’t interrupt the interviewee unless they are obviously wandering off topic.  Good information is often lost when the interviewer over-talks the interviewee. 


EQUIPMENT: 

A Quality Recording

If possible, try to use an external microphone for interviews. Built-in microphones on most recording devices often render a poor quality recording.


Equipment Check

While you are recording your initial preliminaries and before you begin the interview, glance at the recorder to see that it is operational and actively recording.  Check your levels if you have a device with a recording display.  For cassette recordings, stop the recording for a moment and replay the last few seconds to ensure you are recording and the recording level is audible. Many professional oral historians have had the humbling experience of discovering after an interview that, due to an incorrect switch setting, no recording was made of their interview.


Documentary Material

Any hard copy material sent with the recorded interview, such as photos, cruise books, letters, maps, etc., are separated from the recorded interview and sent to other parts of the Archives.  When filling out the summary form, note the documentary material submitted with the interview and although separated, this provides a record of their submission to researchers using the interview.  Consider whether documentary material you’re planning to submit really is historically significant or merely personally significant. They are not the same, and the distinction requires hardheaded and unsentimental judgment.  You may contact the Oral History Office for assistance in making this determination.  


Possible Questions

A few suggested questions that might be helpful to volunteer interviewers, or to those embarking upon a self-memoir, are included below. It is up to the interviewer to determine the best questions for the interview.  Keep in mind that as a government historical organization we do not seek war stories alone, we primarily seek an account of a Marine’s involvement in the larger picture of great events in our Corps’ history, and in our nation’s history.  Finally, avoid acronyms as best possible and ask the interviewer what they mean.  Sad experience proves that today’s commonly understood acronym is tomorrow’s impenetrable puzzle.

 

Some suggested areas of research and query:

In what unit did the interviewee serve; in what operational events; where, when, and with whom did he/she serve; what were the names of commanding officers; what duties; what ships; combat experience; who was the enemy; what insights were gleaned from the service; how did he/she live and fight; what difficulties were encountered; what gear, weapons, and equipment worked well and what didn’t; what did he/she eat; where did he/she bed down; did weather affect activities; perspectives on leadership, good and bad.  

Marine Specific Questions:

1. Early background: Where born/when? Any special relative, person, or event that led to your interest in the Marines? When did you decide to become a Marine? What made you decide? Your high school and college? Major? Your family: spouse and children?

2. (Officers) When did you enter the USMC? ROTC/OCC/PLC? Anyone notable in your TBS class (besides yourself)? Specialty follow-on school?

3. (Enlisted) Your USMC career: When did you enter the USMC? Boot camp location, dates? (Be careful of being sidetracked by boot camp stories.)

4. (For all) Subsequent duty stations—and billets? Combat assignments (or assignments following boot camp)? Commanding officers? Fellow officers or fellow Marines? Your actions that resulted in combat award(s)? Your involvement in (events of historical interest that make this interviewee notable, such as amphibious landings, famous battles, or otherwise notable deeds)? Your opinion of (the enemy; enemy tactics; your unit’s performance; whatever makes the interviewee of interest to historians; fill in the blank).

5. End of enlistment/Retirement: Date and post-military activities?

6. Concluding

                Thank the veteran for sharing his or her recollections.

 

Please be sure that the veteran, interviewer, and photographer (if any) sign the appropriate release forms.

When you have finished the interview and completed the required interview summary and release, send all materials to:

Marine Corps History Division
Oral History Program
111 South Street
Quantico, VA 22134

 

General Sample Interview Questions (from the Library of Congress’ Veteran’s History Project):

Segment 1: For the Record

Make an introductory announcement at the start of each audio or video recording. Record on tape the date and place of the interview; the name of the person being interviewed; his or her birth date and current address; and the names of the people attending the interview, including the interviewer and his or her institutional affiliation or relationship to the interviewee and the name of the camera or recording operator if different than the interviewer. Ask the veteran what war(s) and branch of service he or she served in, what was his or her rank, and where he or she served.

“Today’s date is _________.  My name is _________________, and this is an oral history interview with (Highest rank attained and full legal name) __________________.

The spelling of the last name is: (spell out last name) ____________________________.  We are located at (event and/or full location) __________________________________.

Segment 2: Jogging Memory

Were you drafted or did you enlist?

Where were you living at the time?

Why did you join?

Why did you pick the service branch you joined?

Do you recall your first days in service?

What did it feel like?

Tell me about your boot camp/training experience(s).

Do you remember your instructors?

How did you get through it?

Segment 3: Experiences

Which war(s) did you serve in (WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf)?

Where exactly did you go?

Do you remember arriving and what it was like?

What was your job/assignment?

Did you see combat?

Were there many casualties in your unit?

Tell me about a couple of your most memorable experiences.

Were you a prisoner of war?

Tell me about your experiences in captivity and when freed.

Were you awarded any medals or citations?

How did you get them?

Higher ranks may be asked about battle planning. Those who sustained injuries may be asked about the circumstances.

Segment 4: Life

Ask questions about life in the service and/or at the front or under fire.

How did you stay in touch with your family?

What was the food like?

Did you have plenty of supplies?

Did you feel pressure or stress?

Was there something special you did for "good luck"?

How did people entertain themselves?

Were there entertainers?

What did you do when on leave?

Where did you travel while in the service?

Do you recall any particularly humorous or unusual event?

What were some of the pranks that you or others would pull?

Do you have photographs?

Who are the people in the photographs?

What did you think of officers or fellow soldiers?

Did you keep a personal diary?

Segment 5: After Service

Appropriateness of questions will vary if the veteran had a military career.

Do you recall the day your service ended?

Where were you?

What did you do in the days and weeks afterward?

Did you work or go back to school?

Was your education supported by the G.I. Bill?

Did you make any close friendships while in the service?

Did you continue any of those relationships?

For how long?

Did you join a veterans organization?

Segment 6: Later Years and Closing

What did you go on to do as a career after the war?

Did your military experience influence your thinking about war or about the military in general?

If in a veterans organization, what kinds of activities does your post or association have?

Do you attend reunions?

How did your service and experiences affect your life?

Is there anything you would like to add that we have not covered in this interview?

 

Acknowledgments

The questions above were developed by the Veterans History Project team working in consultation with the American Folklife Center and the Oral History Association. Special acknowledgment is extended to Donald A. Ritchie, associate historian, United States Senate, and author of Doing Oral History (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995).