Questions for Oral History Interviews

Lake Trail Living History Project
Dan Vie – January 2014

The following was given to the students as a guideline for preparing for the interviews.
It was not meant to be a literal script to follow, but an idea list to pick and choose from.

I advised that it is always best to put things in one’s own words, and encouraged the students to write down their questions on index cards.


“My name is “________”, and my name is “_________”. We’re students in the Grade 10 History class at Lake Trail School. Today’s date is “______”, and we’re about to do an interview for the Lake Trail Living History Project.

So, let’s start! Can you tell us your name?

Thank you, (first name), for agreeing to do this interview with us! We’re going to be asking you some questions about your life history. Feel free to share anything you like – and if there’s anything you’re not comfortable talking about, that’s OK, too. Let’s start with some simple questions.


When were you born?
How did you first come here?
How did your first family member come to the Comox Valley?

What was your family house (apartment, farm, etc.) like? Can you describe your room? Did your home have electricity? Indoor plumbing and bathrooms? Telephones?

Can you describe the neighbourhood you grew up in?
How has the neighbourhood changed over the years?

Where did you shop? How far away were these shops and how did you get there?
Did you grow any of your food?

Did you have any animals?

Can you describe a typical family dinner? What foods did you eat?

Did you all eat together as a family? Did you help with the cooking? What were your favorite foods?

Who taught you how to cook? Are there any favorite family recipes that have been passed on?

What activities did the family do together?

What family traditions did you try to establish?

Are there any craft traditions you’ve learned? (i.e. knitting, woodcarving, etc.)
Who first taught you, and what got you interested in this skill?

What was your favorite toy as a child, and why?

What is your earliest childhood memory?

Does your family have any heirlooms or objects of sentimental value?
What is their origin, and how have they been passed down?

What did your parents do for work?

Did you grow up rich or poor, or somewhere in the middle?
Do you remember any times when money was tight?

Describe the personalities of your family members.

Who was the oldest relative you remember as a child? What do you remember about them?

What times did your family find the most challenging?

Did you have any chores when you were a teenager?

What was school like for you? What did you like about it? What was the hardest subject for you?
Was it okay for girls to be smart at your school?

Do you remember any fads from your youth? Popular hairstyles?
How were the clothes different from today?

What were your favorite songs and music?

What were your favorite social events when you were a teenager?

Who were your childhood heroes?

What did you do for fun in the summer? What did you do for fun in the winter?

What were your plans when you finished school? Education? Work?

What became your main line of work?

If you had kids – what was most satisfying to you about raising children? What was most difficult?

What values did you try to raise your children with? How did you go about doing that?

Do you remember your first contact with new inventions like television, or the computer?
When did your family first buy these items?

What’s the largest town or city you remember visiting when you were young?
Can you describe your impressions of it?

How is the world today different from what it was like when you were a child?

Were you here for the big earthquake?

Did you or anyone close to you serve in a war? What do you remember of that experience?

Did you support or oppose the war in Vietnam? How did you express your political opinions?

Did you participate in, or do you have any memories of any of the movements that came out of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, such as the civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movement, or the gay liberation movement?

What is easier now? What has changed for the better?

What was your proudest moment? What accomplishments are you the most proud of?

Was there a time you were afraid, and used your courage?

What has provided you the greatest satisfaction in life?

What is the one thing you most want people to remember about you?

How do you feel about the future?



Start with easy, open-ended questions.
Encourage the person to speak freely.
Questions are only a starting point. The interview may go somewhere else.
Make sure your subject knows they can skip any question you ask. Watch for clues the person is uncomfortable with a certain line of questions.
Silence is OK. Just wait – give the person time to have thoughts.
Make eye contact – really listen and concentrate.
Show your subject you’re listening (smile, nod to show understanding).
Listen for sparks of excitement. Watch for what makes their eyes light up.
Keep breathing, and following the person’s story – rather than thinking what your next question will be.
Keep conversation on track. (“Let’s get back to when you worked with the horses”).
Use reflective listening: (“Interesting” or “I can see your point”).
Watch for hints – fatigue, emotion.
If someone gets emotional or starts to cry, you can say “It’s OK – take your time”.
Use photos, heirlooms, mementos to jog people’s memories.
Keep alert for cues to expand further on a topic.
Have curiosity.
Evoke sense-memories: what images/sounds/smells come to mind?
Reflect back a resonant word or phrase, to support the person in feeling heard and propel him/her onward.
Respect what they say regardless of what you might think of the answer.
Be careful not to share too much of YOUR story – the interview is about THEM, not about showing how much you know.
Give a heads-up when nearing the end of your time, and ask if anything important didn’t get covered.
Always treat your subject with respect and gratitude for sharing their stories.

Ask only closed (yes/no) questions.
Read out the next question while your subject is still thinking.
Interrupt their story with your next question.
Act bored.
Have problems with your equipment and freak out.
Contradict the person.
Send a text message or answer your cell phone.
Get embarrassed at your subject’s emotions.


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