Our Mission

Our mission is simple — to help you capture, preserve, organize and enjoy your family's most valuable memories using archival best practices, methodologies equipment and supplies, employed by FA Logo professional archivists and museum experts from around the world.


American Library Association
Society of American Archivists Member Company
  • Print
  • Email
  • Bookmark and Share

After the Interview

Record stories for future generations
by conducting an oral history interview

Completing Your Oral History Project

Once your interview is over, there are a few steps that a professional oral historian takes.

Depending on the purpose of your interview, some of these steps may not be appropriate for you. Here are directions for completing your oral history project like a professional, as well as some ideas about which steps make sense for your project.

After an Oral History Interview:

  1. Oral Histories and Your Family Archive

  2. Saying Thank You!

  3. Permissions

  4. To Transcribe or Not to Transcribe

  5. Evaluating What You've Learned

1 Oral Histories and Your Family Archives

As soon as you've finished an interview, file and label everything. It's easy to forget the order of the tapes or disks or the date on which the interview was taken. Don’t wait to organize your materials — you might forget important details.

If you have cassette tapes, secure them in their cases with a rubber band and number them in order. It's important to make sure that any audio- or videotapes remain free of dirt and liquids, as well as protected from excessive cold or heat or other external factors. You may also want to make a copy of the tapes to have a "working" set that you can listen to and share with others, and an "archive" set of originals that you keep preserved and protected.

Digital files should be labeled and copied onto CDs, DVDs or external hard drives. If you do make copies onto disks, try to use better-quality disks such as gold CDs or DVDs, which last longer than standard discs.

Establish a template for labeling all files and recordings so that the same information is recorded on each file. Always list the full names of anyone you interviewed, the date you interviewed them, your own full name, along with any other information you decide to include on every record. Make sure this template is used to label all your recordings, but also your paper files — your notes from the day of the interview, your research files, your draft questions, etc.

Make print outs of any documents related to your oral history interview, so that if something happens to your electronic files, you'll still have a paper record.

Place all tapes and disks in boxes and store the boxes in a cool, dry place.

All original files should be stored in a safe, secure location. All materials related to any oral history, genealogy or family archiving project should be organized, centralized and ready to grab if you need to leave the home due to an emergency.

2 Saying Thank You!

Within three days of the interview, send a written thank you note to the person you interviewed. If you know the person well, you could make a phone call to say thank you instead. You should only email to say thank you if you have no other way to reach the person.

It is usual to give each interviewee a copy of their interview. If you decide to transcribe your interviews, you can provide printouts of the transcript, but copies of the tapes or digital files are appropriate, as well. Just use common sense about providing files that the interviewee can actually use — make sure they have a DVD player if you give them a DVD, make sure they have a computer if you provide digital files, etc.

If you already know that there are parts of the interview you didn't understand or names you need to verify or check for spelling, it's okay to ask when you get in touch to say thank you. Just be sure the thank you is the first priority and asking for additional help is second.

3 Permissions

Before you finish your oral history project, review the permission forms for all of your interviews. Make sure everyone you interviewed signed a form and that each form has all the necessary information. If you've lost a permission form or forgot to get one, create a new one that includes the date of the original interview and the date the form will be signed and ask for a new signature.

4 To Transcribe or Not to Transcribe

An interview transcript is a written document that includes everything said during an oral history interview, labeled by who said it. Professional oral historians always make transcripts of their interviews for several reasons. Written transcripts are more practical to use when writing books or essays about history. Also, written transcripts, printed on archival quality acid-free paper, are more likely to last for a longer time than tapes, CDs, DVDs, or digital files. Sometimes, after many years, the transcript becomes the only record of an oral history interview.

But the process of making a transcript is time consuming. Most estimates say it takes about six hours to transcribe a single hour of recording, although of course this varies depending on how clear the recording is, how fast the transcriber types and other factors.

If you intend to donate your oral history project to a library or archive, the institution will almost certainly require written transcripts. If you intend to create a professional-level oral history project for your family archive or to use in your own writing project, transcription is also probably an important step for your project.

If, however, your purpose has just been to learn a little about your family in a fairly casual way and you aren't that worried about sharing it with future generations, perhaps transcription isn't for you.

Making Your Own Interview Transcript
You can transcribe your own interviews, and many professional oral historians do just that.

There is equipment available that can make transcription easier, including audio players with foot pedals, high-quality headphones and specialized software programs, such as Express Scribe. You can even purchase a transcription kit that will include all of those items together. If you plan to do a great deal of transcribing, it may be worth it to purchase or borrow such equipment, but for just a few interviews it probably isn't necessary.

Whether or not you purchase some specialized equipment, there are a few things you will want to have. A modern word processing program will make transcription much easier, although an old-fashioned typewriter will work if you prefer. Also, you might find it useful to have a dictionary handy, as well as some kind of headphones to keep outside noise from disturbing you as you work.

Start by making a "raw" transcript — just a direct, word-for-word written record of everything that was said, including sentence fragments and "ums" and other speech patterns. You may decide to edit the transcript later, but start with a complete transcript of everything exactly as it was said.

Hiring a transcription service
If you prefer not to make your own transcripts, you can hire someone to make transcripts for you. There are many professional transcription services. Rates vary, but you can generally expect to pay about $15 an hour. Each hour of tape will probably take between three and six hours to transcribe, so for a two-hour interview a professional transcript will probably cost between $90 and $180.

You may be able to find a local transcription service in the phone book or online, but it will probably be more reliable to ask a local historical society, public library, newspaper or oral history association for recommendations. Try to get a few estimates to make sure you're asking for the right services. Be ready to explain how long the interview is, how many people are on the recording and how quickly you'd like to have your transcript ready.

If you hire a transcription service, be sure to make copies of your tapes — do not send your originals to the transcriber. It's also a good idea to provide a list of correctly spelled names, places or other specialized words so that the transcriber can easily recognize them and spell them correctly.

Keep in mind that a transcription service is not responsible for conducting research or verification. When you get your transcript back from a professional, you'll still have to review the transcript against the recording to fill in any places where the professional marked the text "unintelligible." You will also still have to make editing and formatting decisions (see below).

Transcription services will generally prefer to transcribe audio recordings, rather than videos. It's standard professional practice to make audio recordings of any oral history interview, even if you are videotaping. The audio recordings are a back-up, but they're also easier to transcribe.

You might be able to find researchers, students or historical societies willing to provide transcription services at a lower cost.

Formatting Transcripts
Once you have a "raw" transcript, you should format it so that all your transcripts match. Professional oral historians usually follow a few general guidelines for formatting:

  • Use 1.5 or double-spacing throughout the document

  • List the speaker's full name in all caps, followed by a colon (:) before the transcript of what was said (kind of like a movie script)

  • After the first time you mention each speaker, you can just use initials or first names instead of full names (if two people have the same first and last initials, you can use a middle initial, too)

  • If you're transcribing cassette tapes, be sure the transcript notes which tape is being transcribed, including which side of the tape you're on

  • At the end of the transcript write "end of interview"

If you have a transcription made by a professional service you will still need to format and proofread it yourself.

Getting Corrections from the Interviewee
Sometimes professional oral historians ask the people they've interviewed to review transcripts to make sure they're accurate. It can be complicated though. People are often tempted to edit the transcript to make themselves sound better or to add additional details they forgot, which is not the purpose of a transcript.

It is usually safer to ask your interviewee to provide spellings of names or to answer specific questions, rather than asking them to review the entire transcript.

If you do decide to ask your interviewee to review the transcript for you, give clear directions about the kind of corrections you're looking for. Be sure to give them a deadline for returning the transcript, as well.

Editing Transcripts
It is typical to edit transcripts to make them easier to read. Few people speak in the kind of complete sentences we're used to reading, and raw transcripts include all the "ums" and "okays" that are typical in speech but not in written documents. Some oral historians disagree about how much editing is appropriate for an oral history.

As a general rule, it's okay to edit out repeated "ums" or other odd sounds, but sentence fragments and speech patterns should be preserved. The transcript should sound the way the person talks, not like a perfectly written essay.

Although some famous works of oral history have been written without clear questions, generally it is best to preserve the questions as part of the transcript.

Before you add your transcript to your file, reread it a few times to catch any typos or misspelled names. Check any words you aren't sure about in the dictionary.

At the top of the transcript, be sure to include the name of the interviewee, the name of interviewer and the date and location of the interview. Add page numbers, as well.

Alternatives to Transcription
If a transcript isn’t necessary for your purposes, one alternative is to create an index or subject/key word list.

You can create an index by listening to the interview a few times and jotting down the major facts and situations discussed. Be sure to include any people mentioned, as well as names of schools, employers and places including towns, states and countries. The index will become a quick way for family members to know what each interview covers without listening to the entire interview later.

You might also include a short summary of the life story of the person interviewed, including important dates. Be sure to note that you wrote the summary and the date on which you wrote it.

5 Evaluating What You've Learned

After each interview, look back at the notes you wrote for yourself when you were starting your oral history project. Did you answer all your questions? Did you learn what you hoped?

This step will help you decide if there are more interviews you want to conduct or other types of research you'd like to do next.

Consider making yourself some new notes about how far you've come toward reaching your goals and add them to your project files.

After the Interview: Checklist

Did you?

  • Thank your interviewee(s)?

  • Evaluate the interviews to see if you've achieved your goals?

  • Plan any necessary follow-up interviews?

  • Return any borrowed photos or materials to your interviewee(s)?

  • Send copies of your interviews to the people you interviewed?

Do you have?

  • All of your recordings and files printed, organized, and labeled in your project files of your family archive?

  • All your tapes, disks and other media, carefully labeled and packed safely?

  • The transcripts or indexes of all your interviews added to your files?

  • All the information you need about photos and other materials you collected and borrowed?