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Best Practices and Guidelines for Conducting Oral Histories : Home

The Libraries partner with faculty and students to support the creation and sharing of oral history interviews.

About Oral Histories 

Image of two people drinking coffee.  Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Oral histories are interviews whereby people pass on knowledge, personal experiences, and memories, which are not usually documented in written sources.  The personal nature of these recordings are labeled as a primary source as they also become historical documents by providing insights into events.

The Libraries' own Oral History and Interviews collection consists of oral history projects administered by the Libraries as well as collections of oral history interviews donated by researchers and community organizations. 

Please email libsys@binghamton.edu for questions about oral histories.  

How the Libraries Can Help

The Libraries can partner with faculty and students to support the creation, sharing, and preservation of oral history interviews.  Please contact us as part of your initial planning.  We can offer the following support:      

  • Class visits to teach students best practices and techniques
  • Individual or small group consultations to discuss oral history creation, best practices, metadata needs, storage needs, transcriptions, and dissemination of interviews
  • Use of  the Libraries’ Recording Studio, a space to conduct oral histories and access to recording equipment
  • Access to Omeka, the Libraries' online exhibit platform, or the ORB, the Libraries’ institutional repository.  These systems can be used to make oral histories publicly available
  • Long term preservation of interviews in the Libraries’ digital preservation system

Steps for Conducting Oral Histories

The Oral History Association (OHA) provides the guiding principles and standards of creation and preservation of oral history interview recordings and materials for oral history practitioners in the United States.  We also highly recommend the Baylor University – Introduction to Oral History Manual.  

Planning your oral history project

  • Formulate your research goals. What do you hope to accomplish by conducting this interview and what is your desired outcome?
  • Plan your project. Do you need a budget, staff, or equipment? The most important thing you will need is access to a quality recorder. The Recording Studio is equipped with hardware and software to create and edit audio.
  • Conduct background research.  For example, you may want to consult resources that describe the history of culture or geographic area of the individuals you are interviewing.
     

Preparing for the interviews

  • Identify the people you will interview. How will you reach them, e.g. phone, email, community gathering? You will want to establish legitimacy so that people trust you and feel comfortable interviewing.
  • Contact your potential interviewees. Explain the purpose of the project and what you hope to accomplish from the interview. For example, we are working on Kurdish diaspora in the US. We will talk about your life back in Kurdistan, why you left Kurdistan, your life in the USA, etc.
  • Formulate your questionnaire. Start questions with Tell me about . . . Describe . . . What do you remember about . . . Explain . . . Expand upon. Avoid leading questions, instead ask open-ended questions. For example, instead of asking: I understand Saddam Hussein tormented the Kurds. What do you think about that? Try this way: What can you tell me about Saddam Hussein’s assimilation policies toward the Kurdish people?
  • Practice interviewing.
  • Find a quiet place to conduct the interview.
  • Verify time and place of your interview with the interviewee at least a day before.
     

The interview

  • Have the interviewee sign a consent form before you start interviewing. Consent forms give permission to the person or institution in writing to interview the informant, publish the interview online, transcribe and other uses. A form includes the interviewee's name, signature, and date as well as the interviewer's name, a statement of permission to use the interview, and the purposes to which the interview will be put.  See sample consent form below.  
  • Set up the recording equipment between you and the interviewee.  Do a quick test to make sure everything is working correctly.  
  • Start the recording with stating:  who, what, when, and where you are interviewing.  For example, "This is Jane Doe and today is March 23, 2021. I am interviewing Mary Smith, etc..."
  • Begin interviewing with general questions such as biographical background.  This will help the interviewee open up and feel more comfortable about responding to questions.   
  • Listen very carefully and do not interrupt the interviewee. Use body language such as looking at the interviewee, nodding, and smiling to encourage your interviewee to share more details.
  • Use verbal encouragement such as “This is very interesting,” “How wonderful.” But do not interrupt.
  • Allow silence during the interview, which is just as important. Wait.
  • Avoid yes and no answers and focus on questions that will prompt a long answer, which provides more information for the project.
  • If you do not get an answer, rephrase and re-ask an important question more than once.
  • End interview with some light conversation. Do not end the interview abruptly.
  • Do not interview more than two hours.

Post Interview

  • After you have completed your interviews, send an email/letter to thank the interviewee.
  • A life history form is useful to create when interviews are to be archived for future use. The form needs to contain information such as interviewee's name, birth dates, and dates of death for parents, siblings, spouses, and children as well as education and work histories.  
  • If you are transcribing the interview, you will need to upload the audio files to the transcribing software. We recommend the Baylor University’s Style Guide: A Quick Reference for Editing Oral History Transcripts files
  • If you are planning on making your oral histories publicly accessible, upload the audio file and transcript to the platform you are using to host the interviews.
  • Back up and store recordings. If you wish to preserve the recording, we recommend creating .wav files.