Oral Histories

Collecting Knowledge: ORAL HISTORIES
Tool authored by: Petter Holm, Norwegian College of Fishery Science, University of Tromso

Tool Description

Oral history is the systematic collection and study of historical information about past events through interviews conducted with people who participated in or observed these events. Oral history is not folklore, gossip, hearsay, or rumor. Oral historians attempt to verify their findings, analyze them, and place them in an accurate historical context. In oral history projects, an informant or narrator recalls an event for an interviewer who records the recollections and creates a historical record. Oral history can be understood as a self-conscious, disciplined conversation between two people about some aspect of the past considered by them to be of historical significance. oral-history imageThe conversation takes the form of an interview. Nevertheless, oral history is basically a dialogue. Oral history also refers to information gathered in this manner and to a written work (published or unpublished) based on such data, often preserved in archives and large libraries. Oral history has become an international movement in historical research. There are many ways of creating oral histories and carrying out the study of oral history.

Expected Outcomes

  • Obtain detailed historical records from a group of informants about past events
  • Gain a range of insights on specific issues
  • Obtain general information relevant to specific issue

What is needed

Before the interviews are conducted, an interview framework must be worked out based on non-oral sources. Define the group of relevant informants and decide how to select which informants to interview. If interviewers are inexperienced, they can conduct practice interviews with each other and/or with a few informants to become familiar with the questions, and get feedback on their two-way communication skills. Record only brief notes during the interview. Immediately following the interview elaborate upon the notes.

For oral history interviews, the method of recording is important, depending on the intended use. Research and choose the kind of recording that you need to produce and then choose your equipment. Always ask permission. Have the informant sign the release form before you leave or send a transcript to the interviewee for correction before the release form is signed.

How it works

  • Ask open-ended questions and avoid leading questions that encourage people to say what they think the interviewer wants them to say.
  • Decide the format and focus of the interview. Some interviews are “life reviews,” conducted with people at the end of their careers. Other interviews focus on a specific period or a specific event in people’s lives, such as a particular resource crisis or the introduction of some management measure.
  • Although multi-disciplinary, oral historians have promoted common ethics and standards of practice, most importantly the attaining of the “informed consent” of those being interviewed. Usually this is achieved by establishing copyright ownership that is critical for publication and archival preservation.
  • Like journalism, oral history is committed to uncovering truths and compiling narratives about people, places, and events.


  • Make sure that the person being interviewed understands and trusts that the responses will be confidential.
  • It may take some practice for the interviewer to find the balance between open-ended and focused interviewing.
  • In an oral history interview, interviewers need some skills. A common problem with interviewers is asking leading questions.
  • Other problems are: failure to listen closely; repeating questions that have already been asked; failure to probe when necessary; failure to judge the answers; and asking vague or insensitive questions.

Examples from GAP2 and beyond

Oral histories were used in the framework of the GAP2 Adriatic Sea Case study, in order to collect information on the changes of fishing activities and fisheries resources in the area. We interviewed a series of fishermen starting with the general question: “what has changed in fisheries and its resources in your experience?” This first round of interviews was used to better set up a more structured framework (semi –structured interviews) to reconstruct changes in rare and vulnerable species as well as fishing grounds in the Northern Adriatic Sea.Waiting to sort the catch. The application of oral history proved that fishermen are repository of a vast, and too often neglected, set of information that is relevant for understanding the past and current status of fisheries and their resources, as well as the mindset of fishermen. The interviews were quite long (sometimes more than 3 hours) since the fishermen were willing to share their experience and their point of view. Moreover, informants shared their perspective and understanding on the biology of several species, providing insights on possible issues to be tested more formally according to current scientific knowledge. It is worth mentioning that the positive outcomes of interviews benefited from a long-term knowledge between interviewers and informant, and mutual trust was already established when activities started. The interviews were audio recorded and processed later on.

What people say about this tool

“By interviewing old fishermen, I learnt more than I could find in books and scientific journals on the history of fishing and fisheries in the Adriatic Sea. Moreover I found fishermens’ understanding of marine ecology challenged my knowledge, something I had to deal with” (S. Raicevich, GAP2 scientist, Adriatic CS).

“Oh, I would need at least one week to tell you the full story, and it would be not enough. This discussion (interview) is helping me remember things I almost forgot” (Renzo Zennaro, retired fishermen, GAP2 Adriatic CS).

References and resources

Leavy, Patricia (2011). Oral History: Understanding Qualitative Research. Oxford University Press.

Ritchie, Donald A. (2010). The Oxford Handbook of Oral History. Oxford University Press.

Web resources

Visual references and resources 

Interviewing Fishermen Mario Casson aboard his fishin effort

Interviewing fisherman Mario Casson aboard his vessel