Oral Interview Basics
Conducting Oral History Interviews for the U.S. Marine Corps’ Oral History Program
The Marine Corps appreciates your interest in the oral history program and your willingness to become involved. Whether you are a Marine Corps reservist about to embark on an interview series in a combat zone, a civilian wishing to submit an interview of a friend or relative, or an individual embarking on a self-memoir, there are often questions about what to ask the interviewee, what procedures to follow and what supporting paperwork is required. We hope to answer those questions here.
When you have finished the interview and completed the required data sheets, send all materials to:
Oral History Unit
Marine Corps Historical Center
1254 Charles Morris St., SE
Washington, D.C. 20374-5040
If you have questions, please contact the Oral History Unit for additional information and guidance.
Click here to download the standard Release Form.
Click here to download the standard Data Sheet.
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 tape, even if it’s as simple a name as “Smyth” or “Browne.” Don’t ask the interviewee to spell it; making sure of the subject’s name is the interviewer’s job. As a note, “Bill Clinton” is not appropriate for historical records; “William J. Clinton,” is. Also, “Spider” is a call sign, not a name. Nicknames and call signs are fine for inclusion as long as the individual’s true name is provided at the outset. If you have a second interview session, or if the initial session extends to a second tape or digital memory card, start the subsequent tape or session in the same way. Tapes and memory cards can get separated and, without this opening identification, may be lost or discarded due to lack of proper identification.
Also specify the date and location of the interview and your own name at the outset of the interview. 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 SSNs OR SERVICE NUMBERS. To do so raises Freedom of Information restrictions regarding the use and release of the interview. Finally, there should only be two voices on your tape: yours and the subject’s. 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, stop recording. (We know S.L.A. Marshall sometimes interviewed entire platoons at one time, but he was not part of the Marine Corps historical program.)
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 where they may is oral, but it is not history. Just because your subject was in the Marine Corps long ago does not make the interview history. The Oral History program is not looking for good “war stories.” The unit is, after all, a government historical organization with the mission of providing primary source material for scholars, writers and researchers. It is up to the interviewer to bring out the historical aspects of the subject’s account. After opening questions covering the subject’s background (where a personal rapport is established and the interviewee is put at ease), a skilled interviewer will ask questions that lead the subject to pertinent portions of their Marine Corps experience. This requires thought and planning. Before the interview, consider the topics you want to cover and what events make this individual significant or interesting. Frame your questions to move the individual along to those topics and events. Experienced interviewers ask questions from written notes, when feasible. No interview can or should be scripted, but neither should an interview have questions like, “So, tell me about your Marine Corps career.” Finally, listen to the responses your subject gives and be alert for pertinent follow-up questions. Good follow-up questions are the mark of a skilled interviewer.
Field interviews of active duty service personnel offer room for latitude, of course. Usually conducted by reservists on active duty, such interviews call for tactical awareness and knowledge of current operations unique to deployed activities. When it is impractical to pre-plan an interview, as it usually is in deployed circumstances, the interviewer must be adroit in formulating relevant questions “on the fly.” Experience confirms the skill of reservist interviewers in doing this and achieving excellent results.
After you have recorded your initial on-tape preliminaries—subject’s name, location, date and interviewer’s name—and before you begin the substantive interview, stop recording for a moment and replay the last few seconds to ensure you are recording and the recording level is audible. Some interviewers do all of this in the presence of the interviewee, others do it just before the interviewee sits down to talk. Either way, do it. Every professional oral historian has had the difficult experience of discovering after an interview that, due to an incorrect switch setting or other technical glitch, all they have is a blank tape or memory chip. An “on-the-air” check prevents this.
Digital recordings, forwarded either on a memory card or CD, are encouraged. If you are not recording digitally, at least use 90-minute cassette tapes rather than 120-minute tapes. Standard government tapes are 90-minutes long. Your 120-minute tape will be incompatible with blank government tapes should copies of your taped interview be made. On the cassette case, clearly write the full name of the interview subject making sure the names and spelling recorded on the tape and written on the case agree. Also, write the basic Who, Where and When somewhere on the cassette itself. We have more than 13,000 tapes at the Historical Center and cases and tapes do inadvertently become separated. Please note: we cannot accept micro-cassettes of any length.
Any material sent with the recorded interview, such as photos, cruise books, letters, maps, etc., are separated from the recorded interview and forwarded to the Personal Papers Collection at Quantico, Virginia. The interview, on the other hand, is archived at the Marine Corps Museum in the Washington Navy Yard. Documentary material cannot be archived along with the recorded interview. Therefore, consider whether documentary material really is historically significant or merely personally significant. They are not the same, and the distinction requires hardheaded and unsentimental judgment.
We avoided videotaped interviews in the past because the multiplicity of video formats, the concomitant requirements for replay facilities and the expensive storage regime that all videotape formats demanded. However, newly available video duplicating technology has prompted us to abandon our former policy of outright refusal of videotaped interviews. Therefore, if you wish to send videotaped interviews, they will be accepted and accessioned into the Marine Corps archive.
Click here to download the standard Release Form.
Unless your interviewee is on active duty, a release is valuable and, for most historical purposes, required. If you don’t employ a written release, at least add to the opening of your interview: “You’re aware that our conversation is being recorded?” (Ensure an audible response from the subject and not just a head nod.) “And you consent to this record being used in the Marine Corps historical program, possibly to include later transcription and publication?” (Again, an audible response is needed.) This oral release, minimal as it is, will be critical should the Marine Corps’ History Division later wish to publish portions of your interview. A formal written release is preferable, but the interviewee’s recorded oral assent and release at least allows the History Division to work with the interview. Interview subjects who are on active duty require no release, but the release is needed from all individuals not on active duty. The release should accompany the recorded interview. Feel free to make copies of the release.
Click here to download the standard Data Sheet.
The lack of comprehensible data sheets (sometimes called documentation sheets) is the most significant and frequent failure of military and volunteer interviewers alike. Interviews must be accompanied by a data sheet for the interview to be accepted and archived in the Marine Corps oral history collection. Military or civilian, young or old, there can be no exceptions. Data may be recorded on a separate sheet of paper, or typed in a standard text file contained on a floppy disc accompanying the tape. A data sheet is simply a page (or a text document on floppy disc) upon which the interviewer records the Who, Where, When and—the key element—a summary of the tape’s content. Note: “data sheet” does not mean data on the individual who is interviewed, but data on the content of the individual’s interview. A data sheet gives researchers a summary form of what may be found on the tape. The more detailed your summary of the interview, the better. Half a page is excellent; a paragraph of several lines may suffice. Good sense should be your guide as to length, but always include a data sheet. The data sheet also will include a basic identification of the interview subject, of course. Again, a data sheet is not a summary identification of the person interviewed. A blank data sheet can be downloaded from this site and printed. There is no standard form, so other formats are acceptable. But a data sheet must be included for your interview to be accessioned into the Marine Corps oral history collection.
Although not usually a problem for volunteer interviewers, classified interviews are not accessible to the public or to most researchers or scholars. Classified interviews are discouraged. Some interviews will be understood to be classified, such as those conducted with certain officers during combat operations. Those aside, advise your interviewee to avoid classified content whenever possible. Classified interviews present significant problems of transcription, storage and eventual declassification.
A few questions that might be helpful to volunteer interviewers, or to those embarking upon a self-memoir, are included below. Ask them all, or ask only a few, or ask others, as you wish. Only you can determine the appropriate questions for a particular interview subject. The questions below are only for starters. Ask other questions that will paint a comprehensive picture for researchers and scholars who will review your interview. Again, please keep in mind that as a government historical organization we do not seek your father’s war stories. We seek an account of his involvement in great events in our Corps’ history, and in our nation’s history. In what unit did he serve? In what operational events was he engaged, if any? Where? When? With whom did he serve? What were the names of his commanding officers? What were his duties? What ships was he aboard? If in combat, who was the enemy? What insights did he glean from his service? Tell us about how he lived and fought; what difficulties he encountered; what gear, what weapons and what equipment worked well and what didn’t. What did he eat? Where did he bed down? Did weather affect his activities? If all of that involves a war story or two, all the better. But simply relating a personal war story is not our primary goal. Put that war story in the context of a mini-social history. Otherwise, please keep the war story, obviously of great family value, for the family record. Make the Marine Corps oral history story relevant to the wider historical context in which so many Marines have gallantly participated. Finally, avoid acronyms and fully identify—on the tape as soon as they are uttered—any acronym the interviewee uses. Sad experience proves that today’s commonly understood acronym is tomorrow’s impenetrable puzzle. Finally, we look forward to hearing your account. Perhaps some of the questions that follow will help you carry out a successful, interesting, even historic, interview.
1. Early background: Where born/when? Any special relative or person or event that lead to your interest in USMC? When did you decide to become a Marine? What made you decide? Your high school and college? Major? Your family—wife 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. Retirement: Date of retirement? Post-retirement activities?
Again, these are merely a few suggested questions. They will lead to follow-up questions. Ultimately, your interviewee should drive the questions you actually employ.