On the Record--Collecting Oral Histories
By Elizabeth Kelley Kerstens, CG, CGL
Ask two people to tell you about the same event or the same person and you’ll get two different stories. The facts may remain the same—Grandpa was six-foot two-inches and born during a
snowstorm—but the perspective will be unique to the storyteller.
As the family historian, you probably want to remember each of these individual nuances. And you can, via an oral history.
Why Oral History?
We’ve all heard family stories. But there’s a difference between jotting down your take on a family story and hearing that same story from a person who was there, or even from a person who is a generation closer to
the event. When you sit down to record the words directly from the source, you capture that speaker’s view, and you create an oral history.
Oral histories are planned, recorded interviews designed to save every word spoken by an interviewee. For the family historian, oral histories result in lasting first-person records—tapes, documents, or both—of
people detailing their life experiences.
There are two basic ways to conduct oral history interviews: directed and non-directed. In a directed interview, an interviewer asks questions, based on previous background research, that specifically relate to the
individual being interviewed. In a non-directed interview, a prepared list of questions is asked of a number of people—useful, for example, when soliciting responses from a group of people who were all involved in the
Planning an Oral History Project
The first item to consider when planning an oral history is the scope of the project. Who will be interviewed? What do you want to learn? Will you question Grandpa about his entire life or just about specific events?
If you plan to conduct the interview yourself, you should be aware that you may hear stories that you’re not comfortable hearing and that the interviewee may not be comfortable sharing with you. In these situations, an
outsider might be better suited to conduct the interview.
Next, decide how many interviews you will conduct. While you may have plenty of stamina, your interviewee may have physical constraints or other commitments that keep him or her from spending too much time with
you during an interview. If your interviewee is unable to talk for more than an hour, you may want to schedule a series of interviews over the course of several weeks. However, if an interviewee is located a great
distance from you, you may be limited to a single interview.
You will need a place to conduct an interview. Because of background noise, an interviewee’s residence or the local coffee shop may not be the ideal interview location—background noise can make transcribing an
interview difficult. If possible, test the recording equipment you plan to use in the location you plan to conduct the interview beforehand to determine if you need to make adjustments or other arrangements.
Detailed research on an interviewee should be conducted prior to an interview. For the family historian, this may mean going beyond a person’s birth and marriage date and place. You’ll want to know as much as
possible about where the interviewee grew up, what family life was like, what jobs he or she held, and other key events, such as marriage and children. Knowing more about a person can help you develop a strong list of
questions and help you focus the interview to meet your goals.
As you conduct your research, jot down open-ended questions you’d like to have answered—avoid questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. Sometimes it’s more effective to prepare a list of key points
that you want to cover in the interview and a timeline of the interviewee’s life to act as your personal guides.
Audio vs. Video Taping
Should you audiotape or videotape an interview? The choice may not be yours—sometimes a person who is comfortable sitting and talking into a tape recorder will cringe at the thought of being videotaped (if you’re
uncertain, ask the interviewee). Regardless of whether audio or video is more convenient for you, you’ll get the most from an interviewee who is comfortable with the environment.
If you’re planning to audiotape an interview, use a good quality audio cassette recorder with an external microphone—you may even want to rent professional recording equipment from a local rental agency. Remember
to test the equipment before you start the interview and choose durable, high-quality tapes suited for the job and for long-term storage. Specialty audio and electronics stores can help you choose the products best
suited to the task.
If you’re videotaping, consider enlisting the help of someone else to operate the camera. Without a camera operator, both interviewer or interviewee can become distracted with the operation of the camera. Mount the
video camera on a tripod during an interview and attach lapel microphones to the interviewee and interviewer to get the best results. Be sure to check power supplies and batteries in both the camera and the
microphones before you start.
Copyright issues may become a factor, even if you’re just conducting an informal interview with Grandma. Legally, both the interviewer and interviewee share the copyright to an oral history interview (an exception
occurs when an interviewer is conducting the interview as a work for hire). While copyright may never come into question, you should still protect yourself from potential copyright infringement by having both the
interviewer and the interviewee sign release forms at the time of the taping.
Sample interview release forms can be found on the Smithsonian Institution’s website. To learn more about potential legal considerations,
see John A. Neuenschwander’s booklet Oral History and the Law (available from the Oral History Association) or review details
about copyright law and the Copyright Act of 1976 (and later revisions).
Conducting the Interview
Before you start the interview, check again for background noises; if practical, turn off or remove telephones. Be sure not to place the microphone too close to a fan or other device that creates a constant noise,
however slight. Have all props and artifacts, like photos or souvenirs, readily available.
Start your recording with detailed information including who you are, who is being interviewed, and who else is in the room (assisting or not). Also, specifically state the date and location of the interview and what you
intend to cover during the interview. Note that both you and the interviewee will be signing a release form. If you are videotaping the interview, you may want to list all of these facts in large print on a sheet or two of paper
and videotape these pages as you would a film slate.
If you’re audiotaping the interview, consider bringing a still camera to the interview to take photos of the interviewee at the time of the interview, and to make photographic copies of artifacts that the interviewee brings to
Proceed with the interview in a manner that makes the interviewee comfortable. Make eye contact and watch for visual cues indicating fatigue or boredom. Be prepared to roll with the punches—the interviewee is, after
all, doing you a favor. Offer breaks when warranted and remember not to overstay your welcome, a particularly important consideration if you’re counting on follow-up interviews.
After the interview, make at least two backup copies of the recording—one for the interviewee, and one for you. Store the original in a safe place. Use your backup, not the original, to make the written transcription.
The transcript you create is possibly the most usable portion of the interview for both researchers and descendants and therefore requires great care during production. If you are unable to prepare the transcript
yourself, consider hiring a professional transcribing service to do the job for you.
If you perform the transcription without transcribing equipment, use the stop and start buttons on your tape recorder rather than the pause button—this can help prevent damage to the tape caused by pausing—and
use the backup copy so your original doesn’t get damaged. Also to save the tape, try to listen, stop the tape, type, and then start the tape again, all without rewinding.
Once you’ve completed the transcription, you may choose to edit it for clarity or brevity, but be careful not to lose the voice and character of the interviewee. Remember, these are the exact reasons you chose to
create an oral history in the first place.
Lastly, after you’ve completed all edits, consider putting the written transcript into a more readable format. Digitize images and add them with the help of publishing software. Include scans of pertinent documents. Donate
a copy of the tape and the transcript to the interviewee’s local historical society (include a copy of the signed release form). And always provide the interviewee with his or her own copy of the interview. After all, you’ve
just contributed a small part to preserving his or her legacy.
- Baum, Willa K. Transcribing and Editing Oral History (Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 1995).
- Baylor University Institute for Oral History. Transcribing Style Guide.
- Gluck, Sherna Berger. An Oral History Primer.
- Ritchie, Donald A. Doing Oral History 2d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).
- Schorzman, Terri A. A Practical Introduction to Videohistory: The Smithsonian Institution and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Experiment (Melbourne, Fla.: Krieger Publishing Co., 1993).
All oral history excerpts taken from an oral history interview with Walter Albert Kelley conducted by Elizabeth Kelley Kerstens, 4 September 1995.
Elizabeth Kelley Kerstens, CG, CGL, is the managing editor of Genealogical Computing and the NGS NewsMagazine and is a frequent contributor to Ancestry