It is essential to recognize hopeful simplicities and potential complexities involved in a single oral history interview.
For comprehensive step-by-step necessities refer to Library of Congress.
For youth-based interviewer projects, the Oral History Association has created a Classroom Guide featuring basic outline principles and best practices for teachers and students grades 4-12. For research and best practice journal articles, don’t miss OHA’s Web Guides To Doing Oral History page.
Boulder Public Library’s Maria Rogers Oral History Project continues to be a great example of a well conducted research, interview, and post-production process.
Remember: best practice when conducting oral history interviews will always be vital to academics, independent scholars, and general enthusiasts alike. To keep this in mind when meeting narrators, their friends and families, is highly recommended as your project unfolds.
At all times: narrators should have open access to the information gathered from friends, family and colleagues; however, in my experience most focus their energies on the interview process itself. Transparency, honesty, and proper confidentiality practice will always help rather than hinder a project’s success.
The process guideline outlined below should be considered for each and every narrator.
That said, each step has particular requirements, and sometimes random demands. By no means should deadlines or unnecessary stress be placed upon a potential narrator. The interviewer’s responsibility includes organization of the best experience possible for each and every person the project makes contact.
Respect, confidentiality, and most important comfortable and gracious hosting can go a long way to make responsive, talkative, and great interview experiences.
- Contact potential narrators via phone and a personal letter of interest.
- Always explain the reason for the interview, including key topics of discussion. Ask about basic information, such as date of birth, mailing address, and a general biographic history.
- Explain in detail where the interview will be conducted, at what specific meeting time, and how the recording will be archived for future use. The requirement of the oral history release form should be understood by all narrators and related parties before meeting for an interview.
- Research, investigate, and organize all information to be collected before the day of the meeting. A great recording experience is a result of well prepared interview questions and sharp research skill on behalf of the interviewer.
- Send a reminder to the narrator one week prior to the scheduled meeting.
- Although a phone call is convenient and often satisfactory, a follow up letter of intention is an effective method to help narrators prepare their story within their own creative capacity.
- In many cases, the more time narrators have to consider an interview, the better. That said, professionalism and good timing on behalf of the interviewer is recommended. Some narrators are ready to talk the day you first contact them.
- The day of the interview, always prepare recording equipment well before meeting.
- If conducted inside the narrator’s home, expect at least 30 minutes of set up time.
- Be sure to sound check equipment by using the narrator’s natural conversation. Allow time as necessary to present the release form for signature before sound set-up.
- Remember: researchers should consider the emotional gravity placed upon the narrator. It is best to make narrators aware of the importance of informed consent, the time necessary to review and handle forms, and your request for a signature after the interviewing experience has concluded.
- Conduct the interview. I’ve chosen to limit my interviews to about 120 minutes dependent on the narrator’s comfort.
- Always be aware of a narrator’s energy level, and their interest in specific questions for follow up. Never interrupt narrators unless they are obviously speaking out of nervousness or anticipation of storytelling. Likewise, as long as narrators are comfortable: remain silent until the next question.
- Always be ready for follow up questions based on new information not available in your original list of research.
- As the interview concludes, allow 10-15 minutes of wrap up time and a couple of key questions of closure. Never wait until the end of the interview for serious or emotional questions. Likewise, research the use of the gentle pause of journalism before asking too many questions at beginning, middle, or ending of the interview.
- If a narrator does not give consent, the recording should be handled according to their immediate wishes, including deletion.
- Request to photograph narrators at the conclusion of the interview, and remind them that photographs are archived as part of their contribution. Also, offer the option for them to share a photograph of their preference.
- ASAP Store WAV files in a secure database location. Scan copies of the original release form, and include photographs to each sound recording file location.
- ASAP Duplicate WAV files into Mp3 format for post production sound editing.
- NEVER EDIT ORIGINAL WAV FILES.
- Create 1-2 CDs (80 min max per CD) as part of a narrator Thank You packet. At least one copy of the recording should be made available. Although some projects may choose not to provide CD copies, I strongly advise against neglecting this small inconvenience of post-production. Make sure narrators have access at all times.
- A second option allows for Mp3 sound files to be added to inexpensive USB flash drives should narrators have access to a personal computer.
- ASAP Catalog, label, and archive all physical and born digital files. This I cannot stress enough. For further reading, consult Metadata: Best Practices for Oral History Access and Preservation.
Consider final documentation, a method for transcription, and the sound recording’s potential for future access and research.
As a final note, explore other avenues for names and contact information of potential narrators that may add further value to a completed interview.
Make contact with your narrator and other family members to give thanks, clarify finding aids created for the sound recording, and as general notification of collection of the archived material. This final step can include a letter of appreciation and informational materials about current projects and upcoming events.
Remember: narrators should be able to contact interviewers, and the archival institutions where their recorded interviews reside, forever. There are exceptions, of course. It should be clear that interviewers are responsible for professional distance as much as project transparency.