Oral History Interviews
Planning an Oral History Project | Interviewing
There are many ways to document and preserve families histories.
One approach concentrates on the examination of public records,
such as census records, church records, wills, and deeds. Another
approach focuses on the examination of various materials that are
in the possession of family members, such as diaries, photograph
albums, home movies, business records and artifacts. A third approach
is concerned with recording oral history interviews with family
members about aspects of their lives and memories of other relatives
and important events in the family’s history.
Recording oral histories can be a very effective way of capturing
information that is difficult to obtain by any other means. Oral
accounts can serve to significantly complement other kinds of information.
For example, a person being interviewed might tell the story behind
a family event that's captured in a photograph, and name
the family members depicted. Recorded interviews also have the
added value of capturing the interviewees’voices and, if
video recordings are made, those persons’moving images, too.
There is a thrill in listening to the actual voices and viewing
the moving images of your own family's elders.
Planning an Oral History Project
In order to get the most out of an oral history project, it is
essential to develop a solid plan at the very beginning. The planning
process should address the following:
- Determine the goals of the project.
- Why is the project worth doing?
- What is the main topic or topics that will be
- What products, if any, will result from the project?
For example, will the oral history recordings be used as
the basis of a print publication, an online presentation,
or an oral presentation at a family gathering? Or, are the
recordings being made simply to have a family archival record?
- Learn about the work that is required for a typical oral history
- Introductory publications, such as the video An
Oral Historian's Work: A Guide for Field Workers in Folklore
and Oral History by Edward D. Ives, provide
a good orientation to the process of conducting oral
history projects. Various websites, such as the Oral
History Association web site and the Veterans
History Project web site also provide helpful information.
- Determine the scope of the project.
- A project's scope can include such things as its
duration, its location and geographic range, and the approximate
number of people to be interviewed from one or more categories.
For example, the scope of a hypothetical project could be
summarized as one that is six months in duration; located
in San Pedro, California, and nearby communities; and concerned
with interviewing all the male and female members of the
family —approximately 12 in all —who moved from
Taormina, Sicily, to San Pedro during the 1950s.
- Conduct preliminary research.
- Have members of the family or anyone else already
conducted research on the topic or topics that interest you?
If so, try to determine what work has been done and whether
it makes sense for you to do additional work or, instead,
choose a different topic that hasn’t been explored.
- Review published and unpublished material about
your topic in order to learn more about it and, thus, better
prepare for the interviews you will undertake. For example,
if you intend to interview a family member about her experiences
manufacturing military aircraft during World War II, it would
be beneficial to read books and articles about the work women
did in the wartime industries, especially those that relate
to the manufacture of aircraft and the work performed at
the particular plant where the relative worked.
- Determine whether there are members of the family
who have the information you are interested in discovering,
and, also, if they are willing and able to share it with
you during a recorded interview. If no one has the information,
or people are unable to share it for one reason or another,
then the best course will be to select a different research
- Determine who will work on the project.
- Who will conduct the interviews?
- Will it be necessary to have a project leader
who will coordinate the work of interviewers and others involved,
and be responsible for answering questions about the project?
- In addition to the interviewers, will it be necessary
to have others who will operate audio or video recorders
during the interviews?
- Who will organize the recordings and other materials
that are generated by the project? It is important to label
these materials, put them in a logical order, and place them
in appropriate archival containers.
- If family members lack the crucial expertise needed
to achieve the project’s goals, will it be necessary
to hire a qualified person?
- Determine what will happen to the recordings and other documentary
materials after the project comes to an end.
- Should the materials be preserved and made available
to other members of the family and others? If so, would it
be desirable to preserve the materials in a public repository,
such as a library, archive or museum? It is important to
discuss this with prospective repositories at the start of
the project because they may have specific requirements,
such as the use of certain media for interviews and the use
of certain release forms that will be signed by interviewers
- It is strongly recommended that a repository be
identified prior to begining the project as the long-term
cost of preserving oral history recordings are very high.
- Create a release form.
- It is critical for oral history projects to use
release forms for the purpose of confirming that interviewees
have given their consent to be recorded and for the recordings
to be archive and/or used for research. Examples of release
forms can be found in the American Folklife Center’s
and Fieldwork: A Layman’s Introduction to Field Techniques,
and also on the website of the
Veterans History Project (153kb PDF. Select this link to go directly
to the VHP release form.).
- Determine what equipment, supplies and other resources are
- What kind of recording equipment will be used?
- What supplies will be needed?
- If interviewers need to travel, will they have
access to automobiles or other appropriate means of transportation?
- Will there be a need for a secure storage space
for the project’s equipment and supplies?
- Develop a timetable for the project.
- When will it start, when will it end and what
are important milestones, or phases, along the way?
- Develop a budget.
- Create a detailed estimate of the cost of everything
needed to accomplish the project. This includes the purchase
or rental of recording equipment, supplies for the recording
equipment, transportation expenses, archival supplies, office
supplies, postage, professional fees, and the cost of creating
any sort of product that is desired (e.g., print publication,
online presentation, etc.).
- Identify sources of funds.
- If funds are needed to accomplish the project,
where will they be obtained?
- Consider ways to inform family members about the
project. They might include an announcement sent by regular
mail or email, and verbal announcements and hand-outs at
family reunions and other gatherings.
There are many publications that outline the techniques and principles
of oral history work. The following tips about interviewing —the
central technique concerned with recording oral history interviews —may
serve as a helpful and concise summary.
1. Prepare for the interview by finding out about your interviewee,
researching your topic or topics, testing your equipment, and organizing
the questions that will help you plan what you want to cover during
2. Clearly and accurately explain to your interviewee who you
are, why you want to do the interview, and what will happen to
the information you collect from that person.
3. Be yourself. Don’t pretend to know more about something
than you do know.
4. Never record secretly.
5. Before you start recording, try to find a location that’s
conducive to producing a clear recording. For example, if the recording
session is taking place at the interviewee’s home, choose
a room that is farther away from the street to cut down on noise
created by traffic.
6. At the start of the recording, make a brief opening announcement
that specifies date and place of the interview, names of the interviewer
and interviewee, and the general topic of the interview. For example:
Today is Thursday, September 18, 2008, and this is the start
of an interview with Fred Johnson at his home at 601 McKinley
Avenue, N.E., in Washington, DC. My name is Donna Johnson and
I’ll be the interviewer. I’m Fred’s granddaughter
and this interview is being done in connection with the history
of the Johnson family. We’ll mainly be talking about
my grandfather’s recollection of the family homestead
in Litchfield, Connecticut.
This is very useful information that can be used to identify the
basic circumstances of the interview later on.
7. Keep the audio recorder or video camera running throughout
the interview. Don’t turn the machine on and off except when
asked to do so or when an interruption requires it.
8. During the interview, encourage your interviewee by paying
attention. Keep any time spent looking at a list of questions or
adjusting the recording equipment to a minimum.
9. As a rule, keep your questions short. Avoid complicated multi-part
10. Never ask a question you don’t understand.
11. Try to avoid asking questions that can be answered with a “yes”or
12. Don’t ask leading questions that suggest answers. For
example, instead of asking “Wasn’t Litchfield a great
town to grow up in during the 1940s?,”ask: “How would
you describe Litchfield as a place to grow up in during the 1940s?”
13. Try to keep your opinions out of the interview.
14. Don’t begin the interview with questions about controversial
15. Don’t interrupt your interviewee’s answers. Use
non-verbal communication (eye-contact and nodding) to encourage
him or her.
16. Use follow-up questions to elicit more detailed information.
Useful follow-up questions include: When did that happen? Did that
happen to you? What did you think about that? What are the steps
in doing that? Can you give me an example of that? What happened
17. Be prepared to let your interviewee take the discussion off
in different directions. This can sometimes lead to unexpected
and exciting discoveries.
18. Make the recording as complete and accurate a record of the
interview as you can. If you are using only an audio recorder,
remember that it has no visual aspect. Therefore, if the interviewee
makes a significant gesture —holds his hands apart and says, “It
was about this long,”for example —be sure to follow
up with a question that allows the information to be captured on
the recording verbally: “So, was it about two feet long?”
19. Consider using photographs, maps, and other materials to elicit
information during the interview.
20. Keep your interviews to a reasonable length. A typical length
for an interview is between one and one and a half hours. It is
the interviewer’s responsibility to determine if the interview
should be concluded because the interviewee is becoming fatigued
or for any other reason.
21. Put a brief closing announcement on the tape at the end of
the interview. For example:
This is the end of the September 18, 2008, interview with
Fred Johnson. The interviewer was Donna Johnson.
22. Carefully save the recording so it can be retrieved later
on. This may involve placing a copy of a digital recording on a
hard drive and giving it an accession number that will allow it
to be readily identified out of the other interviews made during
23. Use a release form. As mentioned earlier, this will clearly
establish that the interviewee has agreed to take part in the interview
and allow the recording used in accordance with the stated goals
of the project.
24. Carefully review the recording of the interview later on in
order to analyze the data, prepare for future interviews, and improve
your interviewing technique.