Oral History Toolkit

By Michella Marino and Laura Miller

I.  Oral History Definition and Overview

            As Donald Richie writes, oral history is the process of collecting personal memories, commentaries, and testimonies of historical significance through a recorded interview.  A prepared interviewer engages with and listens to the narrator by posing relevant questions framed to prompt the narrator's memories, stories, and experiences.  The interviewer is responsible for recording, transcribing, summarizing, and presenting the interview as a historical document to be deposited in a library or archive for the use of future researchers.[1]  Oral historians have created guidelines, standards, and principles to follow when conducting oral history interviews to create an ethical and reputable method of research.  Please see the Oral History Association's website for more guidelines: http://www.oralhistory.org.

            This toolkit is intended as a brief overview of the process of oral history interviewing, and outlines the basic skills and technologies to get you started.  Please see the bibliography for more information and additional oral history resources.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Using Oral History

•  Potential benefits for using oral history include:

- acquiring history that may not have been recorded by traditional sources or the

   public record

                        - providing reliable insight into the complex world of the interviewee

                        - providing extensive details, particularly on personal relationships

                        - interactive sources

            •  Potential drawbacks for using oral history include:

- interviewee memory loss or inaccurate memory

                        - memories influenced by the passing of time

                        - conflict in interviewer/interviewee agendas

                        - subjective interviewee selection

II.  Oral History Methodology

The Interview Process:

•  Choose your project topic and establish research goals.  Think about the following questions:

- What is the overall topic I am researching?

                        - What type of information am I seeking?

                        - What is it I want to learn or what is it I'm interested in?

                        - How will oral history interviews aid in my research project?

                        - What other sources will be beneficial to my project?

• Find subjects to interview, who can provide information relevant to your project.

• Contact your potential interviewees, preferably through a phone call or letter.  Introduce yourself and explain the purpose of the project.  Ask them if they would be willing to be interviewed about their experiences with your topic of interest.  Schedule an interview at a date and time that works for you both.  Attempt to find a location that is quiet and free from distractions to conduct the interview.  Unfortunately, this is not always possible, so be flexible!

• If possible, send the interviewee a pre-interview questionnaire (see "Forms" section of this toolkit for a sample) or ask them a few pre-interview questions on the phone to get some basic details about their life and/or experiences.

• Research your project and interviewee if possible.  Familiarize yourself with background details about your project and the general timeframe of the era so you understand your interviewee's references and so you know the appropriate questions to ask.

• Create an outline of topics that you want to ask your interviewee and create a few questions from each topic to ask during the interview.  Do not limit yourself to this list of questions.  The topics and questions are merely to help initiate the interview.  Do not just read all the questions off your paper in order.  Use open-ended questions that do not force a simple "yes" or "no" answer

Example questions or prompts for further explanation:

- "Where did you grow up?" or "Can you describe where you grew up?"

(Not "Did you grow up in New York?)

- "How did your experience in school change your feelings about…?"

- "Please explain what you mean when you say that this event was important to you."

- "Please tell me about your experiences during the war."

• On the day of the interview, make sure you are prepared!  Turn off your cell phone.  Check your recorder and microphone (if you're using one) to make sure it is working, and pack an extra set of batteries.  Bring paper and pen/pencil to take informal notes during the interview, a camera to take pictures (in case an interviewee agrees to have his/her photo taken), and the oral history consent release form.  Make sure you have proper directions to get to your interview location, and be on time! 

• Reintroduce yourself to the interviewee and thank them for meeting with you and agreeing to the interview.  Explain the oral history consent release form, and make sure they understand it before they sign it.  Make sure the interviewee signs the release form, preferably prior to the start of the interview, but at the very least before you leave.

 • As you are both getting settled and ready to begin the interview, set up the voice recorder between you and the interviewee, and again check to make sure it is working properly.  Always begin your recorded interview by stating your name, the interviewee's name, and the location and date of the interview in the following manner:

"This is ________ [your name], and I'm interviewing _______ [interviewee's name] at _______________ [location].  Today's date is ____________ [date]."

Officially start the oral history interview using the outline and questions you created in advance as a guide.  In general it is best to begin with easy biographical questions, and then work your way into some of the more challenging questions so you have time to built a rapport with your interviewee before engaging in difficult subject matters.

• Let your interviewee talk, and try to remain quiet when they do so.  It is best to encourage them to talk through eye contact, nodding your head, and other visual cues, as opposed to verbal ones ("yes," "uh-huh") that may disrupt their train of thought or narrative – and are tedious to transcribe!

• At the completion of the interview, ask the interviewee if they would be willing to let you take their photo to be archived with the interview.  Make sure to thank them again!

After the Interview:

·      Send a thank you note:  Take a moment to write the interviewee and thank them for taking the time to meet with you.  This simple gesture goes a long way in maintaining a good relationship with the interviewee, and it gives them your contact information in the event that you want to reestablish contact for future research.

·      Interview Summary:  Type up a summary of the interview to be included with the archived audio.   Include the name of the oral history project, name of the interviewee and interviewer, subject focus, date and location of the interview.  Provide a brief overview of the interview itself.  This will be invaluable to future researchers utilizing your oral histories in the archives.

·      Transcription: 

- Transcribing interviews into text is a time-consuming process, but it is well worth the effort.  Consider using free transcription software such as Express Scribe, which allows you to adjust audio playback speed, set "hot keys" to control the audio from your keyboard, and other useful functions to make transcribing your interviews a quicker process.  (See the "Digital Technologies" section for more information.)  A foot pedal is also a useful transcription device, but is not absolutely necessary.

- Transcribing "Ums" and "Ahs":  You do not need to transcribe every "um" the narrator utters during your interview.  When typed up, this can actually be a distraction from the narrator's message.  Only keep enough to provide the reader with a sense of the way the narrator speaks, or when the "ums" (and other such phrases) seem to have particular significance—for instance, if the narrator is uncomfortable speaking about a certain subject.

- Use standard punctuation.  Make sure that it properly conveys the narrator's intended meaning.

·      Returning the Transcript to the Interviewee:  When you have finished transcribing the interview, give the transcript to the interviewee for any corrections they might have.  You may have misspelled the name of a person or place, for example, or misunderstood what the narrator said at a particular moment.  This provides the interviewee with the opportunity to review the interview, keeping an eye out for these kinds of mistakes. 

Sometimes the interviewee will be slow in responding to you, or they may not respond at all.  It is a good idea to stipulate in your letter to the interviewee that they should respond within a given time period (say 3-4 weeks), after which time you will assume that the transcript is acceptable to be archived or published.

Interview Challenges:

You may encounter particular challenges in the course of your oral history interview.  A few situations you may encounter include:

- Conflict between insider/outsider status:  The interviewee may share particular information with you because he/she trusts you as an "insider" or they may withhold information from you because you are considered an "outsider."  Keep in mind what you may take for granted as an insider, and what might be withheld from you as an outsider.  As an insider, you may take for granted knowledge both you and the interviewee share and may fail to ask clarifying questions but may also know the appropriate questions to ask since you have privileged information.  As an outsider, you may ask more detailed questions since you are unfamiliar with the topic at hand, but you may also miss the opportunity to ask relevant questions for the same reasons. 

- Personal relationships:  If you're interviewing a family member, a person that you disagree with, or even a person that you like a great deal, keep in mind that your personal relationships shape the content of the interview.  For example, you may have trouble asking questions that are sensitive.  Similarly, you may hesitate to ask a question that you know could result in an answer that portrays the interviewee in a negative light.  For a more in-depth discussion of these issues, see Valerie Yow's article, "'Do I Like Them Too Much?'" listed in the bibliography.

- Uncomfortable topics: Issues concerning sexuality, racism, gender conflicts, class divides, generation gaps, legality, etc. may hinder the interview process or raise questions about how to tactfully engage in productive dialogue with your interviewee.  Be prepared to occasionally have to confront uncomfortable topics.  Don't be intimidated or discouraged; if you ignore these topics, you might miss valuable information.

- Privacy Issues:  Explain to the interviewee that they have the option to strike things from the record or withhold information from the record.  They have the option of not revealing their identity until a designated date.  Discuss these options beforehand, and include them on the consent form. 

III.  Digital Technologies: Recording and Transcribing Your Interviews

Digital Voice Recorders

Digital voice recorders are compact and easy to use.  Recorders that capture high-quality audio are available to suit every budget, and they need not be an expensive investment. 

Be sure to do some research before purchasing a digital voice recorder.  Determine what features are most important to you, and then compare different models within your price range.  The Internet is an invaluable resource for price comparisons, product reviews, and equipment specifications.  Most important, check to make sure that the digital voice recorder you purchase is compatible with your computer operating system—especially if you have a Mac.

If your budget is in the $40 - $100 range:

Olympus, Panasonic, and Sony all make low-cost digital voice recorders that do not skimp on audio quality.  These voice recorders are compact, portable, and easy to use, providing minimal features but also high-quality audio for projects that do not require "broadcast quality" sound.  The "USB Direct" design of models such as the Olympus WS-400S and Olympus WS-510M allow you to plug the recorder directly into your computer for downloading interviews.  Other models that have received positive reviews include the Sony ICD-UX71 and the Sony ICD-PX720.  These models will work fine for anyone who wants a no-frills digital voice recorder that will preserve oral history audio for a local history project or personal research.

If your budget is in the $100 - $200 range:

Digital voice recorders in the $100 - $200 range feature improved audio quality and additional features for those who are looking to customize their audio recordings.  The Zoom H2 has four microphone capsules, and would be ideal for group interviews or any other interview that requires top-notch audio quality.  The Tascam Dr-07 is another mid-range model to consider—it gets high ratings for its portable size and crystal clear audio.

If your budget is in the $200 - $400 range:

If your oral history project requires high definition, broadcast quality audio for documentary film or radio broadcasts, a high-end digital voice recorder is probably for you.  Models to consider include the Zoom H4n and the Tascam DR-100.

Tips for Using Your Digital Voice Recorder

It's an obvious point, but merits repeating: take the time to read the instruction manual well in advance of your oral history interview.  Learn how to operate your digital voice recorder.  You don't want to encounter any snags when you show up on the day of the interview. 

On the day of the interview, test out the digital voice recorder.  Check the settings and practice starting and stopping the recorder to ensure that it is working properly.  Always remember to bring extra batteries to your interview!

Other Accessories and Software

·      Telephone Recording Device:  Sometimes interviewees live too far away to conduct an in-person interview.  In these cases, a telephone recording device may be used to record interviews conducted over the phone.  These devices are very inexpensive, and they provide a reliable way to record phone conversations.  You simply plug one end of the device into your digital voice recorder's microphone jack, and place the earphone piece in your ear.  When you start recording, the device will pick up both ends of the conversation.  The Olympus TP-7 Telephone Recording Device costs approximately $15-20. 

·      External Microphone: All of the digital voice recorder models referenced above will record high-quality audio in quiet settings, and do not require an external microphone.  However, sometimes it is necessary to record an interview in a setting with considerable background noise (although we do not recommend doing this).  Or, you may simply want higher quality audio for your interviews.  In these cases, you can purchase an external microphone to help reduce distracting background noise.  The Olympus ME-52 Noise Cancellation Microphone, for example, provides an affordable solution at $15-20.

·      Transcription Playback Software: When you want to transcribe your interviews, you can use any audio program (iTunes, Windows Media Player, etc.) to play back your audio.  Another option is Express Scribe, which is free transcription software that allows you to adjust the audio playback speed.  You can slow down a recording, thereby minimizing the amount of time you spend starting and stopping the audio while you type.  Conversely, you can speed up the audio when you want to check your already completed transcriptions.  Express Scribe also allows users to set "hot keys" to start, stop, rewind and fast-forward your audio using the keyboard.  See http://www.nch.com.au/scribe/.

·      Portable Scanners and Digital Cameras:  Interviewees frequently want to share photographs, documents, and objects of significance to them.  But they rarely want to part with them (even temporarily) so that you can make copies or use them in an exhibit.  Portable scanners and digital cameras provide an easy solution!  Ask the interviewee if they would be willing to let you take a photograph or make a scanned copy, which you can then archive along with the interview audio and transcription.

IV.  Oral History Bibliography

Oral History Methodology

Baum, Willa. Transcribing and Editing Oral History. Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1991.

Charlton, Thomas L., Lois E. Meyers and Rebecca Sharpless, eds. Handbook of Oral History. AltaMira Press, 2006.

Gluck, Sherna Berger, and Daphne Patai, eds. Women's Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Grele, Ronald J.  Envelopes of Sound: The Art of Oral History. New York:  Praeger, 1991.

Benefits, Robert and Alistair Thomson, eds.  The Oral History Reader. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Ritchie, Donald A. Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide. New York:  Oxford University Press, 2003.

Sommer, Barbara W. and Mary Kay Quinlan The Oral History Manual. Lanham, MD:  AltaMira Press, 2009.

Thompson, Paul.  The Voice of the Past: Oral History.  Oxford: Oxford University Press,


Thomson, Alistair.  "Four Paradigm Transformations in Oral History."  The Oral History

Review 34:1 (Winter/Spring 2007): 49-70.

Yow, Valerie Raleigh.  Recording Oral History: A Guide for the Humanities and Social

Sciences. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2005.

Oral History Theory

Halbwachs, Maurice.  On Collective Memory.  Edited and translated by Lewis A. Coser.

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Benefits, Robert and Alistair Thomson, eds. "Popular Memory: Theory, Politics, Method."  In The OralHistory Reader, 43-53. New York:  Routledge, 2006.

Portelli, Alessandro.  The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning

in Oral History.  Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.

Oral History and Digital Technologies

Frisch, Michael.  "Oral History and the Digital Revolution: Toward a Post-Documentary

Sensibility."  In The Oral History Reader, Second Edition, ed. Robert Benefits and

Alistair Thomson, 102-114.  New York: Routledge, 2006.

Oral History and Public History

Allen, Barbara, and Lynwood Montell. From Memory to History: Using Oral Sources in Local Historical Research. Nashville:  American Association for State and Local History, 1981.

Baum, Willa K. Oral History for the Local Historical Society. Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1987.

Frisch, Michael.  A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and

Public History.  Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.

Green, Anna.  "The Exhibit that Speaks for Itself: Oral History and Museums." In The

Oral History Reader, Second Edition, ed. Robert Benefits and Alistair Thomson, 416-424.  New York: Routledge, 2006.

Kammen, Carol.  On Doing Local History. Walnut Creek, CA:  AltaMira Press, 2003.

Shopes, Linda. "Oral History and the Study of Communities: Problems, Paradoxes and

Possibilities."  Journal of American History 89, no. 2 (2002): 588-98.

Oral History in the Classroom

Hoopes, James. Oral History: An Introduction for Students. Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1979.

Lanman, Barry A.  and Laura M. Wendling, eds.  Preparing the Next Generation of Oral Historians: An Anthology of Oral History Education. Lanham, MD:  Rowman and Littlefield, 2006.

Sitton, Thad, George L. Mehaffy, and O.L. Davis, Jr. Oral History: A Guide for Teachers (and Others). Austin: University of Austin Press: 1983.

Whitman, Glenn. Dialogue with the Past: Engaging Students and Meeting Standards through Oral History. Walnut Creek, CA:  AltaMira Press, 2004.

Wigginton, Eliot, ed. The Foxfire Book. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972.

Examples of Books Using Oral Histories as Sources

Appy, Christian G.  Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides.  New York:

Penguin Books, 2003.

Blee, Kathleen M. Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s. Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1991.

Myerhoff, Barbara.  Number Our Days.  New York: Touchstone, 1980.

Passerini, Luisa.  Fascism in Popular Memory: The Cultural Experience of the Turin

Working Class. Translated by Robert Lumley and Jude Bloomfield.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Portelli, Alessandro.  The Order Has Been Carried Out: History, Memory, and Meaning

of a Nazi Massacre in Rome.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Terkel, Studs.  Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. New York:  Pocket Times, 1978.

Terkel, Studs.  Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.  New York: Ballantine, 1985.

Terkel, Studs.  "The Good War": An Oral History of World War Two. New York:  Pantheon Books, 1984.

White, Richard.  Remembering Ahanagran: A History of Stories.  Seattle: University of

Washington Press, 1998.

Oral History Challenges

Borland, Katherine.  "'That's Not What I Said': Interpretive Conflict in Oral Narrative

Research."  In The Oral History Reader, Second Edition, ed. Robert Benefits and Alistair Thomson, 310-321.  New York: Routledge, 2006.

Yow, Valerie. "'Do I Like Them Too Much?' Effects of the Oral History Interview on

the Interviewer and Vice-Versa."  Oral History Review 24, no. 1 (1997): 55-79.

Oral History and Memory

Hoffman, Alice M. and Howard S Hoffman. Archives of Memory: A Soldier Recalls World War II. Lexington, KY:  University of Press of Kentucky, 1990.

Oral History Information and "How-To" Websites

Baylor Oral History Workshop on the Web: http://www.baylor.edu/Oral_History/index.php?id=23560

Do History step-by-step guide to oral history: http://dohistory.org/on_your_own/toolkit/oralHistory.html

H-Oralhist: http://www.h-net.org/~oralhist/

Oral History Association:  www.oralhistory.org

University of California, Berkeley's Regional Oral History Office (ROHO): http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/ROHO/

Online Oral History Archives

American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/wpaintro/wpahome.html

American Century Project: http://www.americancenturyproject.org/

"Baseball Memories" oral history activity for Grades 6-10: http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/baseball/teachers/lesson3.html

Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. "Hurricane Digital Memory Bank." http://www.hurricanearchive.org

City Lore. "City of Memory." http://www.cityofmemory.org

Documenting the American South: Oral Histories of the American South: http://docsouth.unc.edu/sohp/

Rutgers Oral History Archive: http://oralhistory.rutgers.edu/

The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) Oral History Project, Boston College: http://www.bc.edu/centers/irish/gaahistory/home.html

Up and Under: The Rugby League Oral History Project, University of Huddersfield: http://www.rugbyleagueoralhistory.co.uk/

V.  Oral History Forms

Oral History Interview Checklist

       Identify a subject or topic that will be the focus of your oral history project, and then identify individuals that you would like to interview.

            Oral History Project Topic: _________________________________________________

Name of Interviewees: _____________________________________________________


       Contact interviewees.  Schedule a date and time for the interviews, and ask them to complete a pre-interview questionnaire with you over the phone.

            Date and Time of Interview: ________________________________________________

            Pre-interview Questionnaire Completed? ______________________________________

       Complete your pre-interview research on the subject.

            Primary and Secondary Sources:_____________________________________________



       Compose a list of 15-20 questions that you would like to ask your interviewee.  These will serve as a guide throughout the interview, but don't be afraid to stray from them!

       Day of the interview: (1) Ask the interviewee to sign the oral history release form. (2) Conduct the interview.

       Take a picture of the interviewee and any of the interviewee's documents, photographs, etc. to include with the interview audio and transcription.

       Send the interviewee a thank you note.

Pre-interview Questionnaire

Consider asking your interviewee to answer a few questions before the interview.  A pre-interview questionnaire will provide you with some important background information that will help you to prepare for the interview.

(1) Interviewee name: ___________________________________________________________

(2) Interview date: __________________ Time: _____________ Location: ________________  

(3) Explain to the interviewee the purpose of this oral history interview. 

______ (check when completed)

(4) Does the interviewee consent to being recorded and agree to sign a release form at the time of the interview? __________________________________________________________________

(5) What role did the interviewee play in the historical event or subject that you are studying? ______________________________________________________________________________

(6) Interviewee's Biographical Information:

Date of birth: _____________________ Place of birth: _____________________________

Nationality: ________________________________________________________________

Places the interviewee has lived: ________________________________________________

Is the interviewee married? __________  If so, when did they get married? _______________

Does the interviewee have any children? __________________________________________

Education: _________________________________________________________________

Work Experience: ___________________________________________________________

Interests and Hobbies: ________________________________________________________

(7) Is there anything in particular that the interviewee would like to discuss in the interview?



Sample Oral History Release Form



My signature below confirms my agreement with the Valley Women's History Collaborative (VWHC) regarding the release of tapes and/or videotapes as well as transcripts of interview(s) with me.

I agree to have my interviews taped and/or videotaped and to have a written transcription of the interviews prepared.  I have the right to edit the written transcript (and, if produced, videotape) for spelling, grammar, and corrections to be returned to the VWHC within sixty days of receipt of transcript.

I understand that the VWHC will make copies of the transcript/tapes and/or videotapes for such research, production (e.g. radio, television, World Wide Web, print publication) and other educational goals as the Collaborative shall determine.  The VWHC will provide me with one copy of the interview and a copy of the transcription, if one is made.  Apart from specific restrictions listed below, I hereby grant and transfer to the VWHC all rights, title, and interest in the interview, including the literary rights and the copyright.  I further understand that I can designate an archive in addition to the VWHC for copies of my tapes and transcripts.  Finally, I permit the VWHC to list my name as an interviewee for publicity and fundraising/grantwriting purposes.

Name (Printed): ________________________________________________________________

Address:  _____________________________________________________________________

Phone Number:           Home: ______________________________

                                    Work: ______________________________

Email:  __________________________________________________________

I wish to place the following restrictions on my transcript and/or videotape and name release:

Signature of Interviewee:        _______________________________________ Date: _________

Signature of VWHC Representative:  ________________________________ Date: __________

Please return to:          The Valley Women's History Collaborative

[1] Valerie Raleigh Yow, Recording Oral History: A Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences, Walnut Creek, CA:  AltaMira Press, 2005, pp. 3-4 and Donald A. Ritchie, Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide, New York:  Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 19.