Skip to main content
Research Guides

Oral History Toolkit

This toolkit has been created for students who wish to use the oral history collections at The Claremont Colleges Library, or who wish to conduct oral history projects.

Overview

Preparing for an oral history interview is perhaps the most important step in the oral history process. Once you have decided upon a topic or event in history, you will need to locate a narrator (also called the interviewee) whose experiences are relevant to your topic. Quality research can create rapport with the narrator and hone interview questions that inspire storytelling. You should read both primary and secondary sources related to the era, topic, or theme of your interview.

According to the Oral History Association, "Oral history interviews seek an in-depth account of personal experience and reflections, with sufficient time allowed for the narrators to give their story the fullness they desire. The content of oral history interviews is grounded in reflections on the past as opposed to commentary on purely contemporary events" (Oral History Association).

Preparing for an oral history interview typically involves the following components, which are explained in more detail in the sections below:

  • Background research of both the narrator and the event or topic
  • Reserve or obtain interview equipment
  • Develop a set of questions to guide or frame the interview
  • Consider the legal and ethical implications of the oral history project

Background Research

To be prepared for the interview, conduct careful research that is both subject-focused and that contextualizes your narrator within the circumstances of the event or time period you are studying. To begin with you will need to know what you are trying to learn. Come up with a concise sentence or two that summarizes your project and that will help you explain to potential narrators what you hope to accomplish. 

Doing background research requires considering information that already exists on your research topic. For example, if you wanted to learn more about a politician, you might want to consider campaign literature (including pins, brochures, posters, and so on); political documents; and perhaps other biographies or interviews that already exist. Likewise, if your focus is on a particular event or time period in history, you will want to consult newspaper accounts, perhaps economic data, any records pertaining to the event you are studying. As another example, if you are using oral history to collect and preserve your family history, you may want to draw from scrapbooks, photographs, family heirlooms, diaries, etc.

Many primary sources and archived interviews are available at The Claremont Colleges Library. See the "Resources" tab on the navigation menu for links to the oral history collections at the Honnold/Mudd Special Collections and links to the oral history archives of The Claremont Colleges Digital Library.

Questions that can help you prepare for your interview may include:

  • Why am I interviewing this person?
  • What do I hope to learn?
  • What events or topics do I want to document?
  • How will I use the interview data to illustrate a point or further my argument?

An important step in the interview process is a non-recorded pre-interview meeting. This step occurs after you have found an appropriate narrator who has agreed to work with you. The purpose of the non-recorded pre-interview meeting is to establish report and to learn as much as you can before the formal interview. Talking informally with your narrator can help you decide what questions to ask during the interview and provides the narrator with important information about the interview purpose and process. This pre-interview meeting can be done over the phone or email, but in person is best. Things you will want to let your interviewee know before the interview might include:

  • The purpose of the interview
  • How you will use the interview data
  • Approximate length of interview and where you will meet (this is a good time to schedule the interview)
  • Where the interview and accompanying materials will be stored and who will have access to these records.

Interview Equipment

Renting Equipment: If you are using equipment from your in department or institution, be sure to reserve it early enough to use it twice: once to become familiar with the equipment, and then for the interview itself. Equipment rental tends to be for a very short period (1 day or a certain number of hours) and the equipment will be in great demand if you are doing your oral history project as a class assignment.

Choosing the appropriate equipment for your purpose and budget is also an important part of preparing for your interview. Considerations should not only include your purposes, but also the long-range issues of access and preservation.

Basic Equipment Checklist:

Digital Recorders: The Claremont Colleges Library requires that audio recordings be recorded in .WAV file format with a minimum quality of 44.1khz 16 bit (CD quality). The better the quality, the better the recording will be for archival purposes. Thus, in considering the recording equipment you can rent, use, or purchase, be sure the recorder will be durable and reliable. It is possible to use your computer or mobile device, but you want to ensure that recordings are of sufficient quality and format. 

Note: If you are thinking about using a video recording device, you may want to refer to Oral History in the Digital Age (see the "Ask Doug" resource).

External Microphones: Good microphones are necessary for clear sound. Lapel microphones are ideal as they can eliminate much of the  background noises. You may wish to have one for your interviewee and one for yourself, or you may wish to use one microphone positioned evenly between you both during the interview. Even if you use your computer or mobile device, you will want to use an external mic.

Minimum of 4GB Storage: Recording at the highest quality settings of your recorder will take up more file space, so be sure to have enough storage. As an example, 4GB of storage will hold approximately 2 - 6 hours of interview depending on your quality settings. Create multiple back-up copies and store them in different locations (i.e. cloud storage, a thumb drive, and your computer hard drive).

 Be sure to familiarize yourself with your equipment before the interview!

Developing Interview Questions

There are a number of excellent resources to aid you in developing your questions, some of which are posted on the "Resources" page of this guide. Briefly, you will want to develop two types of questions: those that obtain factual information about your narrator/interviewee, and questions that will assist your narrator/interviewee in remembering particular events or circumstances.

Biographical Data: Although you likely obtained much of the biographical information about your narrator/interviewee during the pre-interview meeting, it is standard practice to ask some of these questions at the beginning so that your narrator/interviewee can get comfortable with the interview process and equipment. Remember to be sensitive to your narrator's needs; some people are not comfortable disclosing age or other personal information.

You may be interested in the Narrator/Interviewer Fact Form and/or a more detailed Life Story Form.

Open Questions: As the interview progresses your questions may become more concrete and may address more sensitive information. These typically include open questions—meaning that the questions cannot be answered by simply yes or no, or other finite response. Open questions probe for information and seek to trigger stories and memories from your narrator/interviewee.  Examples include the typical journalistic what, where, when, who, and how. But they will also include  phrases such as:

Tell me about...

Describe...

Explain...

me what . . . means

What other reasons . . . ?

Some people say . . . What do you think about that?

Questions are not meant to be followed rigidly; they are a jumping off point for your narrator's stories and memories. Part of the value of Oral Histories is that stories often wander off topic to memories we would not have known to ask about and that greatly enrich the overall project.

Note: Objects and photographs can also help to trigger memories, so invite your narrator/interviewee to bring any materials that might help them to explain or describe events. Your narrator/interviewee may even wish to donate such materials to be part of the oral history archive established for your project.

Legal and Ethical Considerations

Beginning in 2018, the federal guidelines for Institutional Review Boards (IRB) updated "scholarly and journalistic pursuits" as no longer needing IRB approval. The tab for "IRB" listed on the navigation menu provides links and policy overviews. It is a good idea to become familiar with campus and departmental policies. Other legal and ethical considerations may involve a number of aspects of your project, including:

  • meeting locations
  • personal boundaries
  • emotional reactions
  • anonymity requests
  • dissemination and access

Location: Meeting locations should be safe and comfortable for both parties. You may be able to reserve a conference or other room at your institution or your interviewee may wish to interview at his or her home. Wherever you meet, it's a good idea to be sure someone else knows your location.

Boundaries: Respecting narrator rights and boundaries means understanding that your interviewee may choose to withhold information, may change his or her mind about the interview or even allowing dissemination after they have agreed to do so. You will need to be prepared to honor any requests your narrator makes, including asking to remain anonymous. Remeber to honor these requests in the transcript and write-up of the interview as well. 

Emotion: It is not unusual for you or the narrator to be emotionally moved by the interviewee's stories and memories. If appropriate, temporarily stop the recording and allow your interviewee to regain composure. Perhaps your narrator will want a change of subject. Check in with your narrator and ensure that he or she is comfortable continuing with the interview at that time. You may need to reschedule.

Dissemination and Access: Because one of the primary objectives of oral history is making the information available to the public, you will want discuss this aspect of the project with your interviewee beforehand, and again during the interview. The narrator retains all rights to their interviews until and unless they transfer those rights. You may wish to offer your narrator an opportunity to discuss your transcript and/or project draft and they may wish to receive a copy of your final project.