OralHistories

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.

CONNECT WITH US

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

Planning Interviews


Learn and tell family stories during
your family oral history project

Getting Started

The first step is to think about your goals — what do you hope to learn from your oral history project?

Your oral history project goals might be to:

  • Get to know your family better

  • Gather information for a school project on family history

  • Add to a genealogy project or personal memoir

  • Learn more about the life stories of specific family members

  • Donate your family oral history to a library or archive (be sure to check with them before you start to find out if there are any special requirements)

Whatever your goals, thinking about them now will help you make decisions about whom to interview, what questions to ask, and how to preserve your oral history project.

Professional oral historians often recommend saving notes about why you started your project in your archival interview files.

There are 3 questions to answer at the start of an oral history project:

  1. Whom will you interview?

  2. When and where will your interview(s) take place?

  3. How will you record your interview(s)?

1 Whom Will You Interview?

You may already know whom you want to interview — maybe someone getting older whose memories may one day be lost. That's a great start.

If you don't have someone in mind already, think about what you want to learn and who might know the answers to your questions.

To interview someone you know well, start with a phone call. To interview someone you don’t know well, try to find a mutual friend or close relative to introduce you. If no one can introduce you, write a letter. In your first call or letter, explain why you want to interview the person and be sure to discuss:

  • How much time you'll need.

  • Where and when you'd like to conduct the interview.

  • How you plan to record the interview and what will happen to the recordings.

  • That you'll ask everyone you interview to sign a permission or release form.

If you want to use your oral history interview to create a memoir, web site or any other published product or if you might donate the interview to a historical society, library, school, museum or other organization some day, you will need signed permission forms from everyone you interview.

Permission forms are, technically, release forms. That means the person you interview will be transferring the copyright and ownership of the information gathered in an interview (as well as the tapes) to you. Be sure to review your permission form with the interviewee and answer any questions before starting the interview.

A permission form should include:

  • The full name, address and signature of the person being interviewed

  • Your full name, address and signature

  • The date

  • The purpose of the interview and intentions

  • That both the content and the assets are included in the project/gift

  • [Optional] Blank space for any rules the person being interviewed wants to include

2 When and Where Will Your Interview(s) Take Place?

Time
Think as much as you can about your interview subject's convenience and preference when scheduling your interviews. Keep in mind — most people get tired after about two hours.

It's often best to schedule two or three shorter interviews, instead of one long one.

Place
Choose a place for the interview that is comfortable, quiet and free of distractions. The interviewee's own home is often the most practical choice. Sometimes a place associated with certain memories can be helpful, but only if you can control noise and interruptions.

If you plan to record your interview, think about the sounds in the location you choose. Noisy appliances usually rule out kitchens. Fans, heaters and air conditioners can also make recording in some rooms difficult. If the temperature won't get too uncomfortable, you can ask to turn off a fan or heater during the recording.

If you plan to videotape, think about light as well as sound. Don't sit the person in front of a window or bright light source. Shut all the blinds or curtains and turn on all lights so that the room is well lit but not too bright. You may need to bring extra lights or move lights around within the room.

For a video recording, also make sure to tell the interviewee not to wear stripes or loud colors, like orange and red. Small stripes and checks have a tendency to vibrate on screen, and loud colors or patterns can be distracting.

Also — be sure you have power outlets nearby to plug in your recording devices.

3 How Will You Record Your Interview(s)?

Recording equipment is one of the biggest choices of any oral history project. Professional oral historians think long and hard about what kind of recording will best serve their goals and preserve the interviews for future generations.

Try to use the best recording equipment you can. Don't forget, you may be able to borrow equipment. Check with your locals schools, libraries and historical societies, as well as with friends and relatives.

If you just want to talk with your family about their lives, you may decide not to record your interview at all. For many years, oral histories were recorded only by handwritten notes taken during the interview. However, oral historians believe strongly that recordings are best — and with so many technologies available today, recording can be easy.

Common equipment used to capture oral history interviews

  • Standard audio cassette recorder

  • Micro/mini cassette recorder

  • Digital voice recorder

  • Traditional video camera

  • Digital video camera

Before You Record an Interview
Whatever equipment you choose, practice using everything before your interview and make sure it's in good condition. You don't want to be distracted by malfunctioning equipment. And, of course, you don’t want to miss your chance to record family memories because you’ve pressed the wrong button or forgotten to remove a lens cap.

Test your equipment in several different rooms to get a feel for differences in sound and light quality in different spaces.

It's also a great idea to bring a regular camera to any interview. Take a few snapshots. It's a great backup if the picture quality on your video doesn't come out. Pictures are also great to have if you go with just a sound recording.

(See After the Interview for more information about transcribing, preserving and sharing interviews.)

If You Need A Hand
Ask around to find a friend or a student with recording experience who can help you learn to use your equipment.

You might also be able to hire a local student to help record during your interview, if you're confident it won’t make the person you're interviewing uncomfortable. Professional video crews are also an option, but they can be very expensive.

Tips for using and choosing equipment

Standard audiocassette recorders

  • Audiocassettes are still the standard for most professional oral history interviews, although digital recorders are becoming more common

  • Use 60- or 90-minute, high-bias tapes for the best sound quality (longer tapes are thinner and break more easily)

  • Use new tapes for the best sound quality

  • Clean the equipment before each interview

  • Have extra tapes on hand just in case

  • Test your machine carefully to make sure you know where to place it and/or its microphone for best sound quality

Micro/mini cassette recorders

  • Evaluate the sound quality (if playback is poor, consider using a digital recorder or standard audiocassette recorder)

  • Use new tapes for the best sound quality

  • Clean the equipment before each interview

  • Have extra tapes on hand just in case

  • Test your machine carefully to make sure you know where to place it and/or its microphone for best sound quality

Digital voice recorders

  • Digital recorders vary in their sound quality, so test your equipment thoroughly (regular, old-fashioned cassettes may still have better sound quality)

  • Test memory capacity and see if you can easily add memory with a card or stick

  • If possible, choose a recorder with the capability to download directly onto a computer and test any accompanying software's compatibility with your computer

  • Record at the highest quality level

  • For the best quality, do not compress the files during or after recording

Traditional video camera

  • Mounting the camera on a tri-pod is the standard for professional oral histories and it will make a big difference to the quality of your recording

  • Remember that the interviewer does not need to be in the shot (most professional oral histories show only the person being interviewed)

  • Make sure the lens is clean and any lens cap has been removed

  • Use the highest quality level and best tapes for your camera

  • It is standard professional practice to also use an audio recorder when videotaping as both a backup and a more convenient sound recording for transcription later (see After the Interview)

Digital video camera

  • Mounting the camera on a tri-pod is the standard for professional oral histories and it will make a big difference to the quality of your recording

  • Remember that the interviewer does not need to be in the shot (most professional oral histories show only the person being interviewed)

  • Make sure the lens is clean and any lens cap has been removed

  • If possible, choose a digital video camera with the capability to download directly onto a computer and test any accompanying software's compatibility with your computer

  • You could also choose a digital video camera with the capability to record straight to DVD, but be sure to make sure the quality is good and that the DVDs will play on standard players

  • It is standard professional practice to also use an audio recorder when videotaping as both a backup and a more convenient sound recording for transcription later (see After the Interview).


Questions & Research



Spring Sale

SHOP FOR SUPPLIES


Safeguard the recordings, papers and pictures generated as part of your family oral history project with archival-quality supplies:

  1. Document Boxes and File Folders
  2. Drop-Front Boxes
  3. Triangular Roll Storage Boxes
  4. Newspaper Boxes
  5. Bulk Storage Boxes
  6. Sheet Music Sleeves and Boxes
  7. Melinex Sleeves
  8. Map and Print Folders
  9. Poster Folders
  10. Archival Interleaving Paper
  11. Permalife Bond paper
  12. Cotton Gloves
  13. Bamboo Hake Brushes
  14. All-Stabilo Pencils
Oral History Kit

Oral History Kit

Capture their stories and remember them forever with an oral history kit. A turn-key system that walks you step-by-step through the entire process.

Shop for Supplies