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Oral History

Resources for the practice of oral history.

Project Workflow

There are many stages to an oral history project, from pre-production, production, and post-production workflows to gathering documentation to support the preservation of and access to an oral history collection. 

1. Project Planning

Identify aims and objectives, number of interviews, and project timeline.

2. Find, Select, and Approach Narrators

Identify who they are are, how to connect with them, and how to ensure a cross-section of voices.

3. Identify Archive

Find an appropriate repository whose collecting mission aligns with the aims of your project.

4. Locate Recording and Computing Equipment

Secure audio recording and editing equipment. 

5. Prepare for Interviews

Complete background research, treatment (interview guide), and slate of questions.

6. Informed Consent

Narrator and interviewer complete an informed consent form, which should outline the project's aims and objectives.

7. Record the Interview

At the end of every recording session, complete an interview information form to inform accessioning.

8. Upload the Recording

Back up audio files (wav) and create access copies (mp3).

9. Document, Transcribe, and Make any Redactions

Provide the narrator the opportunity to review the transcript. Make corrections. Redact if needed (make a redacted version of the audio file by muting sections). Save the new version with a different filename.

10. Complete Interview Documentation

Document any redactions or closures in an editorial note in the transcript. Secure the deed of gift, upon approval of the transcript and recording, from the narrator.

11. Transfer Recording and Documentation to Archive

Organize your collection for processing, cataloguing, and access. Include copies of signed informed consent form and deed of gift form, audio files (wav), interview information form, edited transcripts, slate of questions, treatment, oral history metadata submission form, and any photographs or other supporting documentation, such as correspondence with the narrator.

12. End of Project

Complete an end of project report, evaluation, and celebration. Send notes of thanks to narrator(s).

Methodology

The workflow for completing an oral history project will entail preliminary research, the design of a treatment (interview guide), a slate of questions, and the interview process itself. 

Laptop1. Preliminary Research

Preliminary research may include a literature search, preparing a biographical file of the narrator, contacting the narrator to define the scope and purpose of the project, and arranging for an interview.

Pencil2. Design a Treatment (Interview Guide)

Create an outline of major topics you wish to cover during the interview.

For example: 
Major Topics

  1. Biographical sketch of family.
  2. Relationship with parents.
  3. Religion, morning worship.
  4. Literary influences. 
  5. Grade school in Harrisonburg, Virginia, friends and teachers.
  6. High school years, teachers, course of study, and social life.

Computer keyboard3. Write a Slate of Questions

  • Use the Funnel Approach in writing interview questions: moving from general to specific.
  • Include only one concept or issue in a question.
  • Word questions as simply as possible.
  • Do not phrase a question that is suggestive of a response.
  • Avoid hypothetical questions.
  • Avoid words with vaguely defined meanings, which may have different meanings to different people.
  • Use open questions (why, how, tell me about).

Over ear headphones4. Complete the Interview Process

  • The interview should be conducted at a site selected by the narrator (usually at their residence), in a room away from elements that would interfere with the quality of the recording.
  • The interview should not exceed 60 minutes and there should never be more than one session per week.
  • After completion of the interview, a transcription of the interview is prepared and made available to the narrator.
FlowersGuiding Principles
  • Respect human dignity
  • Respect free and informed consent
  • Respect vulnerable participants
  • Respect confidentiality

OHA Principles and Best Practices

Messaging bubblesShared Historical Authority

Frisch’s principle of shared historical authority is predicated on the premise that public history spaces (cultural heritage institutions such as museums and archives) should center collaboration between researchers and participants. Shared historical authority is deeply-rooted in the collaborative nature of oral history interviews. It implies cultivating and maintaining relationships grounded in trust, respect, and shared decision-making.

Think of narrators as partners.

A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History
by Michael Frisch

Cup of steaming coffeeConducting the Interview
  1. Remind the narrator of the interview appointment. Connect with the narrator the day before the scheduled interview and ask if they are in good health, and if there is anything that you can do, such as look up a date or locate an article that may help prepare them for the session.
  2. Practice with the recorder (or Zoom) beforehand.
  3. Set up the equipment and start the interview. Setting the proper recording level is very important.
  4. Record a formal introduction for the interview: site the full name of narrator, your name, and the location, date and time of the interview. 
    Example: "Today is Thursday, January 26, 2017 and this is the start of an interview with Lois Bristow at the Deschutes Historical Museum in Bend, Oregon. My name is Kelly Cannon-Miller and I'll be the interviewer. I'm the Executive Director of the Deschutes Historical Museum and this interview is being done in connection with the History of Deschutes County oral history project. We'll mainly be talking about Lois' life and public service as a county commissioner."
  5. Establish rapport with the narrator: make eye contact and listen emphatically to the narrator as they answer your questions.
  6. Avoid taking notes during the recording session. This takes your attention away from the narrator, and can give the impression that you are not interested in what is being discussed or wish to move on to the next topic.
SLR camera on mini tripodTips for Interviewers
  1. Establish eye contact and listen.
  2. Be non-judgmental.
  3. Create a non threatening, relaxed environment.
  4. Ask information questions that require more than a "yes" or "no" answer.
  5. Ask one question at a time.
  6. Ask brief questions.
  7. Start with non-controversial questions; save the delicate ones, if there are any, until later in the interview.
  8. Do not let short periods of silence ruffle you. There is power in the pause.
  9. Do not worry if your questions are not as eloquently phrased as you would like them to be for posterity.
  10. Do not interrupt a good story because you have a thought or a question, or because your narrator is straying from the planned outline.
  11. Try to establish at important points in the interview where the narrator was or what his or her role was in the event. Do not challenge accounts you think may be inaccurate.
  12. Try to conduct the interview with only one narrator present.

The Art of the Oral Historian by David E. Russell

Managing Digital Audio

Open journal with writing utensilPre-Production

Maximize sound quality
  • The environment
    • Quiet space.
    • Dry acoustic.
    • Record room tone (10 seconds of silence) to analyze noise in post-production.
  • Vocal dialog sound
    • Allow narrator to warm up their voice.
    • Mic should be placed 3 to 4 inches away from narrator; if not using a mic, place audio recorder between yourself (the interviewer) and the narrator.
Connect microphone(s)
  • Connect microphones to audio recorder, if using. Turn on audio recorder and set settings.
Test recording levels
  • Perform a level test by inviting your narrator to tell you about their breakfast.
  • Adjust the recording level using the gain knob so that your levels are somewhere between -12 and -6dB. 

Desktop microphoneProduction

Record the interview
  • Remember to capture 10 seconds of room tone.
  • Once the recording has started, do not worry about pauses or mistakes. 
  • Monitor your levels.

Desktop computerPost-Production

Import audio
  • Import the audio from the recorder to a computer and make a backup copy for preservation.
Edit your recording with Audacity
  1. Create new project
    1. Creating a new project is very important in Audacity. Audacity writes all the changed and recorded audio to a directory called Projectname_data, which is located where you saved the project. 
      1. Create new project: File > New
      2. Save project: File > Save Project As
        1. Select a location and filename for your project.
      3. Import audio file.
      4. Save.
  2. Cut out accidental recording
    1.  If you need to cut out sections of the recording because you accidentally recorded content at the beginning or end of the interview, you may do so by:
      1. Selecting the portion of the track to be removed using the Selection Tool and then clicking on the waveform and dragging the cursor to make a selection.
      2. Using Cut Preview to preview the cut by pressing the C key. Adjust the length of the selection. Press the delete key to delete the selection. Use the Split Cut tool to keep the original length (if for some reason the interview has already been transcribed and the original timestamps needed to be preserved). 
  3. Level out the volume
    If some of the sections in the interview are quieter, you can use Audacity's Compressor tool to fit the audio within a selected volume range. The Compressor effect works by making the loud parts quieter, then amplifying everything, which ends up making the quiet parts louder.
    1. Select your track.
    2. Navigate to Effect.
    3. Select Compressor. For your first pass, leave the default settings.
  4. Remove background noise
    If your audio contains a lot of unwanted background noise, you may want to use the Noise Reduction tool.
    1. Select room tone (10 seconds of silence) using the Selection Tool.
    2. Navigate to Effect > Noise Reduction.
    3. Get Noise Profile.
    4. Navigate to Effect > Noise Reduction.
    5. Preview.
    6. Adjust settings, if needed.
    7. Click OK.
  5. Export audio
    1. Export your recording: MP3 for sharing and WAV for archiving.

Transcription

Snake plant in potBest Practices

  1. Fact check the transcript and fill in missing names and dates.
  2. Preserve the spontaneity and integrity of the original audio recording, which is the primary source record. 
  3. Invite the interviewee to proofread the first draft of the transcript, though this task should not result in a rewriting of the text. Interviewees may make corrections to the spelling of names and places as well as add notes to add further information and clarification. These additions will appear in square brackets in the final version of the transcript.
  4. Note that all oral history collections transferred to JMU Special Collections must be accompanied by a transcript.

Fountain pen tipStyle Guidelines

These style guidelines were compiled by Rebecca Boger, Project Assistant for the Civil Rights Greensboro Digital Archive, in 2008. Boger incorporated style guides from the Baylor University Institute for Oral History, the T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History, and the Minnesota Historical Society Oral History Office.

Speech Patterns and Language
  1. Connector Words - Leave in connector words such as “and,” “but,” and “so,” unless they become overwhelming. Do not try to reproduce accents or dialects. Use contractions only if they are used by the speaker.
  2. Crutch Words -  Words such as “you know,” “you see,” or “like" should be left in unless they become overwhelming.
  3. Fillers - Leave out fillers such as “ah” and “um.”
  4. False Starts – Include false starts because they are often indicative of thought and speech patterns. They may be deleted, however, if the false start is a repetition or a stumble, or if the speaker stutters. 
  5. Unfinished Thoughts – Use dashes to indicate falters or incomplete thoughts, rambling speech, or unfinished sentences. Do not use ellipses.
  6. Simultaneous Speech – Include simultaneous speech. Do not finish sentences in the transcript that were not finished during the interview. If each speaker’s statement is indecipherable, use [both speaking-unclear].
  7. Indecipherable words – Use a question mark to express uncertainty in the text. When you cannot understand a word or phrase and cannot venture a guess, use [unclear]. Examples: “My best friend in high school was Bella Johnson [?]. If you’re unsure of a phrase, put the entire phrase in brackets, followed by a question mark: “Like I said [it sounded fine to me?]
Interruptions and Off-Topic Remarks
  1. If a section of the interview is potentially offensive or embarrassing to the interviewee, consult with your professor. Examples might include derogatory racial/sexual orientation comments, discussion of political/religious beliefs, or sensitive personal/medical topics. Example: [conversation regarding DR’s first husband redacted]
  2. Off-topic/Extraneous Remarks by the Interviewer – Encouraging remarks by the interviewer, such as “yes,” “sure,” and “I see,” can be left in if it is used as a direct response to a point made by the interviewee. If they occur frequently and become disruptive, evaluate them carefully. They may be left out if doing so does not affect the course of the interview.
  3. Non-Verbal Sounds – Include and note with square brackets [ ]. Examples: [chuckles], [chuckling], [laughs], [laughter]. Do not capitalize. 
  4. Interruptions - Interruptions that affect the recording (telephone ringing, clock chiming, etc.) should be explained using square brackets [ ]. If the recording is paused, indicate that in brackets. Examples: “We were driving down to the march-[phone rings] Let me answer that.”  Or, [recording paused].
Style

Consult a standard style manual like the Chicago Manual of Style or the APA Manual.

  1. Abbreviations – In general, avoid abbreviations.
  2. Acronyms – Always provide the full name of an acronym if known. Use square brackets to provide the full title of the name or organization Example: “I started out with the SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference]."
  3. Capitalization – Follow the proper forms of standard English in running text.
  4. Administrative Titles – Titles are capitalized only when they are combined with a name and refer to a specific person. They are not capitalized when referring to a general title. Example: I talked to Chancellor [Dr. Lewis] Dowdy.
  5. Numbers – Use numerals as long as the numbers do not begin the sentence. If a year is the first word in a sentence, it must be spelled out. Example: “I moved to Greensboro in 1937 or ’38.”   “Sixty was the year of the sit-ins.”

Oral History: Best Practices and Procedures, Hedge Library & Learning Technologies

Style Guide, Baylor University Institute for Oral History

Video play screenFormat

Include the following elements in your transcript:

Title: Interview with [Name of Narrator]

[Project Name]

Interview status

Name of narrator
Name of interviewer
Name of videographer

Number of sessions
Length of interview
Place of interview
Date of interview
Language of interview

Editorial Note

Interviewee’s Biographical Details

See Concordia University, Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, for an example of an oral history transcript