How to Conduct Your Own Oral History Project

Every voice matters, and an oral history project ensures that members’ voices are heard and their stories affirmed and preserved. Record interviews with members in your own state or branch and capture their reflections and perspectives on AAUW’s involvement in the last century. Your oral history program will engage members (anyone can join the project!), reach diverse audiences, and add to the existing historical information about your state or branch. And gathering the stories will help you get the full picture of the times and themes in AAUW’s history while giving a voice to those whose stories have yet to be told. You can share these stories with your community and prospective AAUW members during programs, in your marketing materials, and even on your social media platforms or website! Use this guide to establish your own project.

Elements of a Good Oral History Interview

  • Solid preparation
  • A professional and respectful approach
  • The best possible sound quality
  • A signed release form authorizing use of the story
  • Best possible preservation of recordings
  • Access to recordings and transcripts

Preparing for the Interview

Identify the purpose of your oral history project.

Think about why your oral history project is needed. What information are you seeking? What information is already available on the topic?

Identify potential narrators (people to interview).

Locate narrators whose experience fits your themes and who are willing, able, and available. Narrators should have firsthand experience related to the subject. Potential narrators might be people you know through your state or branch, or those who you have heard of through word of mouth. It is also important to choose narrators who have a story that has not yet been told. As an example, if someone has written a personal memoir, they might not be the best choice for an oral history interview. You want to think about capturing a story and a voice that have not yet been heard. You should only interview one person at a time; group interviews are not advised.

Establish contact with the narrator.

Before the interview, contact the narrator by mail explaining that you would like to interview her. Explain the purpose of your project and outline the purpose of the interview, the length of time involved, and the topics that will be addressed. Suggest some dates and a location for the scheduled interview. Follow through by confirming the details. Make it clear at this point that you will be asking her to sign a legal release form prior to the interview (see below).

Conduct background research.

This is an essential step in preparing for your interview. Not only will background research guide you in the development of your question list, but it will also enable you to establish a friendly rapport with the narrator. You want to have a thorough knowledge of the time period and key events that occurred during her lifetime. You can begin your research with a brief phone call to learn more about the individual’s life and then review the relevant time periods to gain additional historical perspective. Newspapers are a great resource for research! Thorough research will lead to a better interview, help you create an informed question list, and better prepare you to ask follow-up questions that keep the story on track.

Create a question list.

Your question list should be well thought-out and should reflect the life experiences of the narrator. Your background research will help you here. Download our sample interview questions to get started!
Download sample questions 

Create a release form.

The release form is an agreement that the narrator and interviewer sign before or after the interview to grant written permission to record, duplicate, or use the interviewee’s words. We recommend getting the release form signed before the interview. Words are intellectual property and cannot be reproduced or reused without this permission.
When signed, the form means that the narrator donates the interview to the organization, library, or archives. In addition, the signed release means that all copyright ownership is also transferred to AAUW and that all future use is permissible.
Download a sample release form 

Prepare an interview worksheet

A worksheet contains the details of the interview and provides the first step in accessing the information. This is completed after the interview and always kept with the recordings.
Download a sample interview worksheet 

Organize and train interviewers.

You will want to make sure you have enough people to conduct the interviews. Are you going to be working as a team? Do you need to teach other members how to conduct interviews? Do not schedule more interviews than you and other trained interviewers can reasonably handle.

Consider and select equipment.

You will need

  • A recorder
  • Two microphones
  • Blank media (cassette tapes, SD cards, or CDs)
  • A computer/printer

Do you have equipment on hand that you can use? If not, do you have the ability to purchase a recorder? Can you borrow one? A local library or historical society may loan this kind of equipment.

Technology is constantly changing so recommending a specific recorder and media source is difficult, but the most important factors to take into consideration are your budget and your technological comfort. It is very important to practice with whatever equipment you will use and always have spare batteries, SD cards, and/or cassette tapes on hand.

Conducting the Interview

Demonstrate respect for the narrator by showing up on time and being polite. Arrive early enough for the interview so you can set up and test your equipment.

If possible, use your recorder with a power source rather than battery but always have extra batteries, SD cards, and/or cassette tapes on hand.

Try to keep the room free of background noise and interruptions. Close doors and move furniture and objects as needed to ensure a high-quality recording.

Have the narrator sit where she is comfortable, but not too close to or too far from the recording equipment.

Always begin the recording with an introduction to frame the interview. For example, “This is an oral history interview for the AAUW oral history program. The interviewer is (your name here) and the narrator is (interviewee’s name here). It is February 1, 2016, and we are in Washington, D.C., at the home of Mary Smith.”

Always start the interview by having the narrator state her full name, date, and place of birth.

Proceed with question list.

Have pen and paper on hand to take notes, write down correct spellings, etc. … (A laptop or iPad can also be useful as long as your typing doesn’t make noise!)

Recorder

Professional archivists recommend handheld digital recorders using SD memory cards. If you choose a digital recorder, look for recorders that create uncompressed PCM, WAV files and select a recorder with a USB output terminal so you can connect your recorder directly to your computer to transfer audio files. The advantage of a small recorder is it is unobtrusive during the interview, but do not sacrifice size for sound quality.

Some recommended models of digital recorders include

  • Marantz PMD-661 ($649)
  • Sony PCM-M10/R Portable Linear PCM Recorder ($399)
  • Olympus LS-10 Linear PCM Recorder ($199)
  • Tascam DR-05 Portable Handheld Recorder ($95)

Cassette recorders were commonplace in the oral history world for a long time and may still be a good choice if the recorder is a good quality and you can find the blank tapes.

Try to use equipment that can be run on a power cord. Make sure you bring an extension cord to the interview as you might not know the placement of outlets in the room. If you have to use battery power, make sure you have extra batteries on hand.

Microphones

Recorders generally come with built-in microphones but it is best to use two external microphones for best sound quality. One is for the narrator and one is for the interviewer. There are two basic types of microphones: standard (placed in a stand or handheld) and lavalier (clip-on).

The most important thing to remember is to use what you have on hand! Don’t let equipment considerations delay you from getting that interview done. Your cell phone, for example, could be used if you have nothing else on hand.

Post-Interview Follow-Up

Always thank the narrator, in person and in writing. This shows respect for their contribution and the time involved on their part.

Fill out the interview worksheet completely. Store the worksheet along with the recordings.

Make copies of the recordings, preferably in different formats, and designate one copy “preservation master.” Remember, SD cards and other forms of digital storage are not suitable for long-term storage. Copy recordings onto a combination of CDs and computer hard drive.

Label all recordings with the date and the narrator’s name.

Store tapes and SD cards in a clean, climate-controlled environment.

If you conduct several interviews or have an ongoing project, create a written inventory of interviews.

If you have time, transcribe the interview.

Transcription

A transcript is a print representation of the recorded sound interview. Transcripts make the information on the recording easier to locate and use in research, presentations, or exhibits but are labor intensive. If you choose to do it yourself, keep in mind the time commitment: 10–12 hours of work on average for every recorded hour of sound. Narrators may review the transcript for spelling of proper names and clarification but not to change parts of the interview.

What you can send to AAUW?

If available, send a copy of the transcript.

If no transcript is available, send a short summary of the interview or the interview worksheet including the name of narrator and interviewer, date and length of interview, and subjects discussed.

Do not send tapes or recordings.

Oral History Resources

Books and Articles

Neuenschwander, John A. A Guide to Oral History and the Law. (Oxford University Press, 2009).

Charlton, Thomas L., Lois E. Myers and Rebecca Sharpless, eds. Handbook of Oral History. (Alta Mira Press, 2006).

Kathryn Anderson, Susan Armitage, Dana Jack, and Judith Wittner, “Beginning Where We Are: Feminist Methodology in Oral History.” Oral History Review 15 (Spring 1987): 106.

Gluck, Sherna Berger and Daphne Patai. Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Online Resources

Oral History Association

Baylor Institute for Oral History

Worchester Women’s Oral History Project

Veterans History Project

Sophia Smith Collection Voices of Feminism Oral History Project


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