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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.

Oral History Interviewing

Although a number of resources exist to give advice and considerations in conducting the Oral History interview, perhaps the most concise resource is the Oral History Association's "Principles and Best Practices." The items below are excerpted from the OHA resource.

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 one to two hours, if the narrator wishes to continue those wishes should be honored, if possible.

The Lead: Begin your interview recording with  a “lead” at the beginning of each session to help focus your and the narrator’s thoughts to each 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.

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 any 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 should fully explore all appropriate areas of inquiry with interviewees and not be satisfied with superficial responses. At the same time, they should encourage narrators to respond to questions in their own style and language and to address issues that reflect their concerns.
  • 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 should attempt to extend the inquiry beyond the specific focus of the project to create as complete a record as possible for the benefit of others.
  • In recognition of the importance of oral history to an understanding of the past and of the cost and effort involved, interviewers and interviewees should mutually strive to record candid information of lasting value.
  • 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.

Organizing and Naming Your Files

Whether conducting one interview or a group of them, consistent and clear file names are of key importance in keeping them organized. If you are completing your Oral History Project for a course assignment, you'll want to find out if your instructor has file convention preferences. Otherwise, a good rule of thumb is use short descriptive terms separated by underscores. Do not use spaces or special characters (other than dashes or underscores). In the example below, the first part of the name is the interviewers initials followed by an underscore separating the next section which uses the last name and first initial of the narrator. The last section following the second underscore is the date in MMDDYYYY format.


Also, check with your repository to verify which file types they prefer to receive. They may, for example, prefer to receive Word documents (docx) or Rich Text Format (rtf); and they may wish to receive uncompressed WAV files rather than MP3 format.