Science and Disability: Frequently Asked Questions

Learn more about participating in an oral history interview for the Science and Disability project.


What is an oral history interview?

An oral history interview is a recorded discussion between a trained oral historian and an interviewee (or narrator). Oral histories may be narrowly focused on a particular event or era of historical significance that the narrator participated in or witnessed. Alternatively, oral histories may take the form of life-history interviews, in which the interviewer and narrator explore the narrator’s experiences of early childhood, education, career, family life, etc.

The oral histories we conduct for the Science and Disability project—like the majority of the oral histories in the Science History Institute’s collection—will be life-history interviews. This more in-depth approach to capturing the experiences of people with disabilities who pursue training and careers in STEM fields will assist researchers from a variety of disciplines in their work, and will also provide those who have a disability and who are interested in pursuing a career in science with insight and strategies for their own career.

Why do people choose to participate in an oral-history interview?

Published histories of events and eras, whether intended for an academic audience or for a wider readership, long relied on official documents, correspondence, newspaper accounts, and other sources composed, compiled, and preserved by members of the political, professional, and social elite. Oral-history interviews provide an opportunity for people whose perspectives are often omitted from official and public records to reflect on the way historical events have played out in their lives and on their own roles in shaping history. Oral history interviewees are typically motivated by a desire to share their stories—their experiences and the lessons they’ve drawn from them—with future generations of researchers and historians to help round out the story of the past.

Who conducts the interview?

Interviewers for the Science and Disability project will be drawn from project staff and advisory board members and from other staff members in our Center for Oral History.

Our staff members are professionally trained oral historians who adhere to the professional guidelines laid out in the Oral History Association’s Principles and Best Practices. They prepare for each interview by conducting broad subject-area research, as well as background research into each narrator. This background research helps them to draw up an “interview protocol,” or outline of the topics they hope to cover with the narrator over the course of the interview. Our standard practice is to have two interviewers conduct each interview; usually one will take the lead role while the other will monitor the recording equipment and may interject with follow-up questions or requests for clarification at times.

How should I prepare for the interview?

There is no special preparation that the interviewee needs to do before the interview takes place. The oral history interview will focus on your own memories and experiences, so you are already the expert. That being said, some interviewees do find it helpful to review photo albums, diaries, their own CVs or resumes, or other historical and biographical material in their possession that might help jog their memories before the interview. You may even choose to make some or all of this material available to the interviewers either before or during the interview session. Copies of images or articles discussed during the course of the interview can also be included as supplemental material in the final transcript.

Interviewees sometimes request that we provide them with a list of questions in advance of the interview. We are unable to do so because we rarely, if ever, work from a list of questions. Rather, as noted above, our interviewers prepare an interview protocol that maps out the topics to be explored during the interview; questions and follow-ups usually arise naturally as the discussion unfolds.

Where will the interview take place?

We conduct the majority of our interviews in the narrator’s home, office, or laboratory space. For the Science and Disability project we believe it will be particularly valuable to meet our interviewees where they live and work, as some of the discussion will focus on the ways our interviewees adapt to, modify, and navigate the physical, social, and virtual spaces around them.

When considering a particular room for the interview setting, we look for a quiet space with seating for all the participants in the interview session (interviewer, interviewee, and any interpreters or other assistants who will be involved), access to electrical outlets for the recording equipment, and good lighting.

How long does an interview last?

Life-history interviews—like the ones we’re conducting for the Science and Disability project—are usually 4 to 6 hours long and are conducted over multiple sessions. We generally find that individual sessions shouldn’t last more than 3 hours, and if the session is scheduled to take 2 hours, a short break in the middle is helpful for all participants. We’re happy to tailor the number and length of interview sessions to fit your needs and schedules.

How will the interview be recorded?

We plan to use a mixture of audio and video recording for this project. All recordings will be transcribed, and you will be given the opportunity to review the transcripts for accuracy.

What if there are questions I don’t feel comfortable answering?

As professional oral historians, our interviewers are accustomed to exploring narrators’ life stories while respecting their privacy and dignity. Throughout the interview you always have the right to decline to answer any question. We can also discuss with you before the interview what, if any, topics you consider off-limits for the interview.

Will I have the opportunity to review the recordings and the transcript of the interview?

Before we finalize your interview, we will provide you with a copy of it to review in any format or combination of formats you prefer: digital, print, audio, and/or video.

How will the recordings and the transcript of my interview be maintained and made accessible to others?

All of the interviews will be preserved and made available in our library and will be freely accessible to researchers for noncommercial, educational purposes. Occasionally, when researchers are not able to come to the Institute to use our oral histories, Center for Oral History staff make arrangements to provide researchers with electronic or print copies of our interviews. The Institute may also draw on interview materials for online, in-house, and collaborative educational exhibitions and programming.

Will the recordings and/or transcript of the interview be available on the Internet?

The Institute’s standard is that we do not place entire oral histories on the Internet. We do, however, provide information about each interview on our website, and all interviews are fully text searchable via our Internet-based search engine.

The Science and Disability project is meant to reach multiple audiences from a variety of interests and backgrounds. Given our goal of making the findings of this project accessible to a variety of communities, we expect that one product of this project will be a web-based exhibition of some kind. We may wish to use content from your interview in this way online, but this will only be done in full cooperation with each individual narrator involved.

Additional questions? Email the project team at SciDis@sciencehistory.org.