Tips for Conducting Oral History Interviews
and preparation | Equipment | Conducting
the interview| Editing | Preservation
following tips should be considered general and introductory.
Consult the bibliography for more specific and detailed information.
through your objectives for conducting an oral history project
and choose interviewees accordingly. Select interviewees who
have the background and experience that might be expected to
result in authoritative knowledge or interesting perspectives
relevant to the subject you are attempting to document. For
example, if your objective is to record an overview of the formative
years of the high tech industry in Massachusetts you will want
to select representative companies and locate employees who
were at those firms in the startup phase. You may want to include
sales reps and technicians as well as entrepreneurs, executives,
and engineers for each firm. If your objective is to explore
the ideas of the founders of high tech firms that were created
as spin-offs of graduate work done at MIT, you may decide to
interview those founders, their thesis advisors, their business
partners, business rivals, spouses, and classmates. Oral history
can be used to flesh out the details left undocumented by other
sources, or to offer new perspectives on events that have already
been documented by other means.
sufficient time to do relevant reading (if available) on the
life and career of your interviewee(s) and on related subjects.
Books, articles, press clippings, resumes, and manuscript materials
are all useful. The more you read, the better prepared you will
appropriate tape recording apparatus and become thoroughly familiar
with its capabilities and with how to use it.
the interviewee about your objectives and expectations, emphasize
the importance to the project of his or her cooperation, explain
that he or she will be asked to sign an agreement determining
copyright ownership, and explain that the tapes and transcripts
will be preserved and made available for research.
a good quality tape recorder (e.g., Sony or Marantz) with input
for external microphones, a power cord, and a line enabling
hookup to another recorder.
a good quality microphone with a stand for tabletop use. Unidirectional,
omnidirectional, and lavaliere microphones can be used for interviews,
but each type has advantages and disadvantages. The omnidirectional
works well in most situations and is the best choice for projects
that can afford only one microphone
high quality Type 1 cassette tapes (60 or 90 minutes). Do not
use "chrome" or "metal" tapes.
a site that is convenient for the interviewee, but relatively
free from distractions and background noise. If the site chosen
is the interviewee's home, ask if it would be possible to talk
in a room that is quiet and away from the flow of family activity.
an appointment well in advance and call to confirm one or two
days before the agreed-upon date.
extra tapes, a watch, and an extension cord in addition to the
a well-organized list of questions, but do not interfere with
the spontaneity of the interview by providing the questions
to the interviewee in advance
the tape to run for several seconds (to get past the leader)
before beginning to speak. Begin each tape by stating the names
of interviewee and interviewer, as well as the date and location
of the interview. Position the microphone carefully, speak clearly
in the direction of the mike, and encourage the interviewee
to do the same. Check the apparatus periodically to ensure that
the tape is running. Note the time when recording started so
you can turn or change the tape before it gets to the end, resulting
in lost words
questions in a form that invites expanded answers instead of
a simple "yes" or "no." Ask additional appropriate questions
as they occur to you. Follow up on interesting comments. Be
polite and respectful at all times, but do not be afraid to
ask difficult or controversial questions. (It may be advantageous
to reserve difficult questions for the later stages of an interview,
after rapport has been established.)
single interview session should not ordinarily last longer than
two hours. Make appointment(s) for additional interviewing if
a background sheet of relevant facts, such as interviewee's
name, phone number, and address, length and location of interview,
the circumstances of the interview, subject highlights, and
hard-to-spell names or other words. Label each cassette with
name of interviewee, date, length of tape, and copyright notice.
an experienced and careful person, trained in the use of word
processors, to type transcriptions, using a foot pedal for starting
and stopping the tape as needed
transcript should eliminate false starts, crutch words, and
repetition, but should not correct grammar or alter meaning.
the transcript to the interviewee for clarification and correction
of errors and have it retyped.
an index (if time and resources permit).
original recordings as well as transcripts. If possible, make
a preservation copy of the cassette on 1/4 inch polyester reel-to-reel
tape. Create a "user copy" of the cassette so that the original
is not subjected to unnecessary wear and tear.
tapes away from magnetic fields (e.g., airport metal detectors,
magnets, and running motors).
tapes "tails out" at a constant temperature between 50 and 70
degrees F. and constant relative humidity between 40% and 50%.
Minimizing the fluctuation of temperature and R.H. is important.
tapes that have been played at normal speed, not at "rewind"
or "fast forward" speeds. Tapes should be stored upright, not
a control file for each interview, containing fact sheets, question
lists, copyright agreements, correspondence with interviewees
or their families, notes of telephone conversations, and other
you have not already done so before conducting the oral history,
discuss with an appropriate archival repository the possibility
of finding a permanent home for the materials you have collected.
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