The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention & Innovation
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MIND: Documenting Invention

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Oral History Interviews

Oral history is an essential tool for documenting inventors and the invention process. Much of an inventor’s work is intuitive, relying on implicit knowledge and insights that are not documented in the written or physical record of his or her work. The process itself is complex and nonlinear, and does not lend itself to straightforward narratives. Therefore, an inventor’s work is often best understood through a recorded conversation.

Responsibilities of the interviewer

The candid nature of interviews, however, raises special concerns for interviewers. Interviews often contain information not otherwise available, and which can be used for a great many purposes, including those harmful or damaging to the interviewee. It is a maxim of oral history that the interviewer needs to be candid and forthright about the purposes for which an interview is intended and the form in which it will be made available to others. While there is a legal requirement to do so, there also is an ethical imperative that may go further than legal requirements. The interviewee is choosing to share information honestly about his/her life; it is thus the responsibility of the interviewer to be unmistakably clear about the objective and outcome of the interview.

Inventors are often public figures with a stake—at times financial—in the stories they are telling about their inventions. This complicates the ethical responsibilities of interviewers. Interviewers should make clear to the interviewee that discussions of trade secrets or other information that could damage the inventor can be restricted from use. Comments of a potentially libelous nature about other individuals should be discouraged. If the interview is conducted with permission from a company or other institution and is with a current employee or board member, that information should be disclosed in a summary included with the interview so that researchers are aware of the potential impact of that relationship on interview content.

It is commonplace for oral history projects to permit interviewees to review the interview transcript and to make corrections before it is made available for research. This process of review is best used to ensure correct spelling of names and corrections of fact or transcription errors. This review process is particularly useful for addressing the technical knowledge inherent in inventors’ work, and allowing the inventor/interviewee to review the transcript for accuracy of technical terms, scientific concepts, etc.

However, it is not unusual for interviewees to view this process as a chance to rewrite the interview and change content at key points. For this reason some oral historians prefer not to include a process of transcript review, either by securing a release form prior to that point or dispensing with the transcript entirely. A more typical practice is to give the interviewee a clear deadline for indicating any changes in the transcript and guidelines for the kinds of changes that would be acceptable. If the transcript is not returned by the deadline, then it stands as approved; if changes exceed the guidelines then there is a basis for discussion with the interviewee.

Types of interviews

Careful and thorough advance preparation, including general background research and gaining a degree of technical knowledge, is critical to the success of any oral history interview. An early stage of preparing for an interview is deciding on its style and desired outcome.

Basic research interviews are driven by the research needs of the interviewer. They may or may not be comprehensive in discussing the inventor’s body of work.

Life history research interviews, on the other hand, offer an opportunity to broaden the interviewee's explanation of his/her activities; disrupt rote stories of how invention took place; facilitate identifying motivation and emotion in the inventive process; and encourage interviewees to reflect broadly on the place of their work in the larger society. Such an approach means spending time early in the interview establishing family patterns, childhood experiences, youthful influences, and education.

Life history is a particularly useful technique for understanding motivation. Asking questions about early childhood experiences, favorite school subjects, games and toys, and influential adult figures provides context for choices made as an adult, such as chosen careers, preferred work methods, etc. Making these connections helps facilitate discussion about the emotional content of the invention process and the patterns that motivate inventors' work.

Group interviews, another standard oral history technique, may enhance understanding of invention as a problem-solving process. The group interview technique helps to get beyond the standard “lone inventor” story, and establishes the interactive elements of the invention process, group dynamics, leadership, and skill. However, interviewing groups can pose challenges, especially if the group defers to a boss or leader. Group interviews should be followed by individual interviews as well.


A number of tools and techniques may be used during the interview to ensure that the intended outcome is obtained. These include

Through oral history, the inventor’s thoughts, processes, and successes and failures can be explored in a way that far exceeds the information available in the written record.

Last Update: 28 Dec 2010

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