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Oral History: The Interview

              Best Practices for Oral History


1. Background Oral historians should conduct background research on the person, topic, and larger context in both primary and secondary sources

2. Training Whether conducting their own research or developing an institutional project, first time interviewers and others involved in oral history projects should seek training to prepare themselves for all stages of the oral history process.

3. Narrators Oral historians should choose potential narrators based on the relevance of their experiences to the subject at hand.

4. Communication Before any interview takes place, you should inform your interview subject of the purpose of the interview, the general subjects to be covered, the time and place of the interview, how the interview will be conducted (will it be taped, video taped?), and what will be done with the information. After securing the narrator’s agreement to be interviewed, the interviewer should schedule a non-recorded meeting. This pre-interview session will allow an exchange of information between interviewer and narrator on possible questions/topics, reasons for conducting the interview, the process that will be involved, and the need for informed consent and legal release forms. During pre-interview discussion the interviewer should make sure that the narrator understands:

  • oral history’s purposes and procedures in general and of the proposed interview’s aims and anticipated uses.
  • his or her rights to the interviews including editing, access restrictions, copyrights, prior use, royalties, and the expected disposition and dissemination of all forms of the record, including the potential distribution electronically or on-line.
  • that his or her recording(s) will remain confidential until he or she has given permission via a signed legal release.

5. Equipment  Before the interview, interviewers should become familiar with the equipment and be knowledgeable about its function.

6. Questions Interviewers should prepare an outline of interview topics and questions to use as a guide to the recorded dialogue.


1. Space The interview should be conducted in a quiet room with minimal background noises and possible distractions.

2. Lead The interviewer should record a “lead” at the beginning of each session to help focus on the session’s goals. The “lead” should consist of, at least, the names of narrator and interviewer, day and year of session, interview’s location, and proposed subject of the recording.

3. Timing Both parties should agree to the approximate length of the interview in advance. The interviewer is responsible for assessing whether the narrator is becoming tired and at that point should ask if the latter wishes to continue. Although most interviews last about two hours, if the narrator wishes to continue those wishes should be honored, if possible.

4. Rules of the Conversation Along with asking creative and probing questions and listening to the answers to ask better follow-up questions, the interviewer should keep the following items in mind:

  • interviews should be conducted in accord with a prior agreements made with narrator, which should be documented for the record.

  • interviewers should work to achieve a balance between the objectives of the project and the perspectives of the interviewees.

  •  interviewers must respect the rights of interviewees to refuse to discuss certain subjects, to restrict access to the interview, or, under certain circumstances, to choose anonymity. Interviewers should clearly explain these options to all interviewees.

  •  interviewers and interviewees should mutually strive to record candid information of lasting value.

  • if a project deals with community history, the interviewer should be sensitive to the community.

Post Interview

1. Documentation Note the interviewee's name, the date and place, and any interview notes as soon as each interview session is finished. You may want add comments.

2. Release Form The interviewer should secure a release form, by which the narrator transfers his or her rights to the interview to the repository or designated body, signed after each recording session or at the end of the last interview with the narrator.

3. Archival materials If available photographs, documents, or other records should be collected, and archivists should make clear to users the availability and connection of these materials to the recorded interview.

4. Label your tapes or files: If you are recording your interview, clearly label your tape with the date, the interviewee’s name, and the subject of the interview.