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Frequently Asked Questions - Oral History

What is oral history?

The term ‘oral history’ has two general meanings:

Oral history is a collaborative method of documenting a person’s lived experiences of the past through a recorded interview. Interview participants with memories pertaining to a specific theme or event recount their recollections through a guided conversation with an interviewer. The interviewer supports the person’s process of remembering by actively listening and asking informed questions.

Oral history also refers to the resulting document that is created in the course of an interview. The recorded document is a primary source that can be archived and made available to the public.

Why does the Museum collect oral history interviews?

The human experience of immigration is not defined by official timelines and benchmarks. Rather, it is fluid, dynamic, layered and contradictory. Official immigration documentation is virtually silent on peoples’ thoughts, motivations and intentions around their decision to immigrate. As well, it is unable to provide information about how immigrants interact with, adapt to and participate in Canadian society. By conducting oral history interviews, the Museum creates the opportunity for people to share their experiences of immigrating to Canada and how it has shaped their lives. These personal stories also tend to illuminate aspects of larger civic, national and world events.

Recorded interviews become part of the Museum’s Oral History Collection. They are preserved and made accessible to members of the public, including researchers, writers, filmmakers and students, in support of their projects. The Oral History Collection also contributes to the development of Museum exhibits, educational and interpretive materials, publications, website and social media engagement.

Who can participate in an oral history interview?

The Museum conducts interviews with people on the topic of immigration on an ongoing and project-specific basis.

The Museum’s Oral Historians are based in Halifax but travel to locations across Canada to conduct interviews periodically, so they may be able to visit your city or town.

What should I expect during an oral history interview?

Prior to the interview, a member of our team will contact you to complete a pre-interview. This will be an informal conversation that is not recorded. During the pre-interview, the interviewer will ask you basic biographical questions in order to get a better sense of your life story and immigration experience. The pre-interview allows us to get a basic understanding of your story and to prepare questions that pertain specifically to your experiences for the full-length interview. You also have the opportunity to ask the interviewer any questions you may have about the interview and to gain a feel for how the interview will unfold.

The interviewer will also discuss the interview release form with you, which you will be signing after the interview. We encourage you to ask any questions you have about the interview process or outcomes and any point.

The interview begins with a brief introduction and then traces your life story from childhood to the present day. The interviewer will ask questions related to your life experiences. You may answer these in any manner you choose. You are free to stop the recording at any time should you need to take a break.

Following the interview, the interviewer will ask you to sign a release form giving the Museum copyright of the interview. With your consent, the interviewer will also take a still photograph of you.

How long does an oral history interview last?

The oral history interviews often last between 90 minutes and three hours, but the duration of your interview is flexible and ultimately based on how long you feel comfortable telling your story.

When planning for an oral history, you may wish to book off three to four hours from your day. Aside from the interview itself, you will need time to review the release forms and for the interviewer to scan any documents or photographs you bring with you.

What language is used during the interview?

An oral history interview may be conducted in either English or French.

What types of questions does the interviewer ask?

The interviewer will ask you a number of questions related to the following:

  • Your life experiences in your country of origin
  • Your reasons for migrating
  • Your recollections of the voyage
  • Your memories of your arrival in Canada
  • Your life in Canada

We want you to feel at ease throughout the interview process. You are able to decide how much or how little information you share. We are always happy to discuss the interview process with you in more detail.

Where is the interview held?

We conduct our interviews in quiet, comfortable locations whenever possible. When we are travelling to other locations throughout the country, we will make an effort to find a location that is convenient for you. If you would prefer, we can also come directly to your home.

Should I prepare for the interview?

As we are most interested in your life experience, there is no need for any formal preparation since you are the foremost authority on your personal history. As mentioned earlier, leading up to an interview, we will contact you for a pre-interview and discuss the details of the interview.

Should I bring anything with me to the interview?

We encourage you to bring any photographs or documents with you that relate to your memories. For example, some participants bring their old documents, scrapbooks, family photo albums or digital photos. With your permission, the Museum will scan these documents and include them in its digital archive.

In what format is the interview recorded?

We tend to record our interviews with video but you are free to decide whether your interview is recorded with audio or video based on what you are comfortable with.

Who retains copyright of the interview?

When you participate in an oral history interview, you will be asked to sign a release form that gives the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 copyright over the interview recording. You will retain the rights to your stories and can use the recording from the interview as you wish. You may place certain restrictions upon the use of the interview and may withdraw consent at any time during or after the interview.

How will the interview be used?

The interview may be used by the Museum for a variety of purposes. This could include:

  • The development of temporary, travelling and permanent exhibits
  • Research on immigration (Museum staff and external researchers)
  • Public programming
  • Educational materials
  • Public broadcast, publications, documentaries, public performances and presentations, communications and promotional materials
  • Electronic distribution via websites or social media tools

The interview serves to inform the public about the various Canadian immigration experiences.

Can I get a copy of the interview?

Our Oral Historian or Oral History Researcher would be happy to provide you with a copy of your interview on CD or DVD. It may take a few months before a copy of your interview is available. If you have participated in an interview for the Museum in the past and have not received a copy of your interview, please contact Emily Burton directly to request a copy.

Oral History Contact

Emily Burton, Oral Historian
902-425-7770 ext. 241
Toll free: 1-855-526-4721 ext. 241
eburton@pier21.ca