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Oral History Resources: Home

Resource list for people planning to take oral histories

Beginning your project

The resource that you cannot renew, the one that you cannot make more of, is time. It is too easy to get hung up on equipment. As time passes, people forget, or they leave us. Capture the memories NOW. 

Having said that, the Oral History Association has valuable, down to earth information on starting an oral history project, including a link to audio recording systems. Equipment is a moving target, the best you can do is figure out the features you need and look at equipment reviews. Features you need to think about include: Media it records on (how specialized is it and how likely is it to become obsolete before you finish your project?), how well does the mic pick up soft voices? How long will it record before you have to put in a new memory card? What is the battery life?

If your machine records on unusual media (small cassettes, etc.) migrate the interviews onto more standardized media as soon as possible. If you want to keep them usable for decades, you will need to keep migrating them as technology changes. If you want to keep them usable forever, I suggest transcribing the interviews onto paper.

All of the above also applies to video recording. 

Recording using an app on your phone today is better than recording with state of the art equipment sometime next year.

The most important aspect of the equipment is that you know how to use it. Practice every aspect, from putting in the memory card  to recording to pausing the recording, to restarting the recording without losing what you've already recorded, to naming the recorded file, to listening to it play back, to transferring the recording to other media. 


Planning your project

1) Determine your goals

2) Determine what you need to record to achieve your goals

3) Determine the best people to interview to capture what you need

Sounds easy, right? You'd be surprised.

One difficulty that novices encounter is that they ask the people who have the widest range of information and experience the questions that could be asked of anyone, information that is widely known. Then, when they realize that there are some essential elements that they don't have, those elements are not known to the people who remain to be interviewed. If they are lucky, the first people they interviewed are still available and willing to be interviewed once more; but in the meantime what they have built is an archive where the same 5-10 stories are repeated, from different viewpoints, again and again, while other information has been entirely neglected.

The easiest way to avoid this is to create a table for planning. 


Example (topic x people)

Oral History Planning Form






Aunt Jane  

Aunt Kim    

Uncle Sid     

Mom’s parent’s migration to US








Mom’s recipe for New Year’s bread








How Dad’s parents met








Military service








Grandma V’s false teeth
















Family tree 








Great-Uncle Sid’s kites








Leave space for things that come up in interviews

























When you are setting up an interview, figure out what information your subject knows that is unique. When you contact that person to set up the interview, speak a little about the things you want to ask them. This is a pre-interview, it is a chance for you to help them recall information so that the later complete interview you do with them is better; it is also an opportunity for you to learn things that need to go into follow-up questions or into entirely new questions. Take the time to do this right and take careful notes. 

More on questions

Determine which questions to ask based on what you want to capture:

if you want to support work on a family tree, then make sure you get the full name of subject, subject’s brothers and sisters, parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, etc. (My parents have found it easiest to remember this by generation. Focus on one level of the family tree at a time.) Try to get birthdates and places; death dates and places. In the pre-interview ask if people have newspaper clippings that they'd be willing to have you scan or photograph and come prepared. Do the interview first. If there are a lot of items to scan or photograph, you might need to come back another day to work on those. 

If you want to create a legacy for your children of their heritage, get the full name(s) as above, but also ask about how those names were chosen - is it a family name? Who were they named after? Did they have a nickname when growing up? How about now? In the pre-interview ask if they have photos that they'd be willing to have you scan or photograph and come prepared. Do the interview first.

Storycorps' site includes an interesting list of questions to get you started.


The Interview

Choose a place where the person you are interviewing is comfortable. If it is that person's home, see if they will agree to unplug their phone to avoid interruptions. If you are video recording, play attention to lighting and backgrounds (avoid situating them so that it looks like the plant behind them is growing out of their head). 

Bring water or something you know they like to drink, this can be thirsty work. 

Begin the interview with "I'm <your name>. It is the <date of month/year> and I'm interviewing <their name>." You can do this in any format you like, the point is to get your name, their name and the date (and maybe the location) at the beginning of the recording. This is better than a label that can fall off later. Just include the basic information in the recording. 




Copy the recording and label the original and the copy.

Listen to the recording to make sure everything came through all right.

Send a thank-you to the person you interviewed. (It's nice to mention something you particularly loved about what they shared with you.)

Set up a time to copy/scan/photograph any other materials they are willing to let you put into this project.

Transcribe, if you can find the time.