Oral History Research Guide


Oral history is both a method of recording and retaining oral testimony and the product of that process. Oral history stems from the tradition of transmitting important information to families and tribes from one generation to the next. It begins with an audio or video recording of a first person account made by an interviewer with an interviewee (also referred to as narrator), both of whom have the conscious intention of creating a permanent record to contribute to an understanding of the past. A verbal document, the oral history, results from this process and is preserved and made available in different forms to other users, researchers, and the public.

Oral history is distinguished from other forms of interviews by its content and extent.

Oral history interviews are intended to obtain a detailed account of the experience and personal reflections, with sufficient time to allow storytellers to give their story the fullness they desire. The content of oral history interviews is based on reflections on the past rather than on observations of purely contemporary events.

Oral historians inform narrators about the nature and purpose of oral history interviewing in general and of their interview specifically.

Oral historians ensure that storytellers voluntarily agree to be interviewed and understand that they may withdraw from the interview or decline to answer a question at any time.

Narrators may give this consent by recording an oral statement of consent prior to the interview.

IInterviewers must insure that narrators understand the extent of their rights to the interview and the request that those rights be yielded to a repository or other party, as well as their right to put restrictions on the use of the material. The use and distribution of the interview content must comply with the narrator's restrictions.

Because of the importance of context and identity in shaping the content of an oral history narrative, it is the practice in oral history for narrators to be identified by name.

There may be some exceptional circumstances when anonymity is appropriate, and this should be negotiated in advance with the narrator as part of the informed consent process.

Oral history interviews are historical documents that are preserved and made accessible to future researchers and members of the public.

This preservation and access may take a variety of forms, reflecting changes in technology. But, in choosing a repository or form, oral historians consider how best to preserve the original recording and any transcripts made of it and to protect the accessibility and usability of the interview. The plan for preservation and access, including any possible dissemination through the web or other media, is stated in the informed consent process and on release forms.

In keeping with the goal of long term preservation and access, oral historians should use the best recording equipment available within the limits of their financial resources.

Interviewers must take care to avoid making promises that cannot be met, such as guarantees of control over interpretation and presentation of the interviews beyond the scope of restrictions stated in informed consent/release forms, suggestions of material benefit outside the control of the interviewer, or assurances of an open ended relationship between the narrator and oral historian.



Post Interview


RESTRAINT: The experienced interviewer maintains rapport by following good interview techniques: being efficient but unobtrusive with equipment, starting at the beginning and proceeding chronologically, asking open-ended questions, listening closely without interrupting, following up on details or unexpected avenues of information, challenging questionable information in a nonthreatening way, and generally maintaining an atmosphere in which the interviewee feels able to respond fully and truthfully.

REVIEW: Interviewers should listen to their interviews soon afterwards to analyze their interviewing techniques and to pick up details to follow up on in subsequent sessions.

Allow the interviewee to do the talking

Ask "open-ended" questions, such as, tell me about, describe, etc., what do you remember about? If the interviewee responds with just a yes or no, ask how, why, when, where, who. What the interviewee chooses to tell you and how they choose to tell it is just as informative/ revealing as the actual answers they give.

Avoid “closed-ended” questions that can end in a yes or not, or single fact. Examples, were you there? What was date of that? Did you like that? If you get a short answer, follow up with tell me more, who, what, when, where, how and why

Do not ask leading questions was it this or that? Or I thought that the most important thing was….. These have been demonstrated to affect interviewee’s answer and will taint your interview.

Try to ask follow-up questions tell me more, who, what, where.

Focus on recording their personal experiences, rather than stories about others or that they have heard. If you’re getting general stories, say tell me about your role, describe how you felt that day or dealt with that crisis, etc.

Don't worry about silences. Let the interviewee think and take time before they answer. Look at your outline and check off topics if the interviewee needs time to think.

Note what types of questions your interviewee responds best to and try to adapt your style to what 4 works best with them.

Let the interviewee suggest topics to you that you might not have thought of

After an hour or less, ask interviewee if they would like to take a break. Write down the last words as you turn the recorder off.

Provide the interviewee with feedback by nodding, smiling, listening attentively. Try to avoid too many verbal responses that will record over the interviewee, such as “Really!’ or “Uh-huh, uhhuh.”

Do allow the interviewee to tell “THE STORY.” Most interviews have a favorite story. They will fit it in somehow, so let it happen! Allow some repetition since additional details may emerge with a second version, but don’t allow your interviewee to keep telling the same story over and over.

Let the interviewee do the talking. Try to avoid telling your own stories, “Yes! When I was there….” or offering your own opinions. If asked for an opinion, explain that the interview is designed to record their point of view, not yours.

End interview gracefully, asking them to assess their lives and the topics you have discussed


There are many recorder options that will record an uncompressed preservation quality audio file. If you do not have access to a recorder, most smartphones have recording software that will record an MP3 audio file.

Test the recorder to check the volume of the interviewer and interviewee and to see if it is picking up any static or surrounding noise.

Begin with an introduction that identifies who is being interviewed, who is conducting the interview, where, when, and the purpose of the interview. Ask if you have permission to record the interview.