Hege Library & Learning Technologies

Oral History: Best Practices and Procedures

Resources and tips for conducting and recording interviews for oral history and course community projects.

UC Berkeley Regional Oral History Office

UNC CH Southern Oral History Program

Click on "10 tips for Interviewers" within the Southern Oral History Program Resources page.

Interviewing Steps

Know your subject

  • Be knowledgeable about the subject content of your interview, and about the interviewee and his/her agency.


Construct questions

  • Be very focused in formulating questions to get the information necessary to your project, without creating extraneous information. 
  • The ideal length for an interview is forty minutes to an hour; people begin to tire by 1.5 hours.
  • On average, it takes an hour to transcribe and format 5 minutes of spoken word. A forty-minute interview can take approximately 8 hours to transcribe (more about transcription in the next session).
  •  Formulate an opening statement for the beginning of the interview that will also be repeated at the end of the recording. Example: “I’m Claire Morse and I’m interviewing James McMillan on March 23rd, 2012, in the Friends Historical Collection on campus and we are going to talk about Jim’s experience at Guilford College as the first African American full-time faculty member.” 


Know your recording equipment

  • Smart phones, iPads and digital recorders are all possibilities. Hege Library has iPads that check out for 72 hours per check-out period and two digital recorders with a 3-day checkout period.
  •  Be familiar enough with your equipment to be at ease while setting up for and conducting the interview.
  •   If available, use two recording devices to lessen the possibility of loss of the audio file due to equipment failure.
  •  Copy and save the audio file to multiple storage spaces to ensure the data file is not lost (external hard    drive, flash drive, computer share space, etc.).


Schedule the interview

  • Be respectful of the interviewee’s time by contacting him/her well in advance of class due dates for maximum possibilities for your schedules to coincide. As interviewer, you’re asking an interviewee to fit you into his/her busy schedule, not the other way around. 
  •  Let the interviewee know he/she will be asked to sign a release form allowing for use of the audio and transcript for educational and research purposes, or other purposes you anticipate (interviewees should be aware that you plan to post audio to YouTube, for example, if that is your plan). Email or mail the release form in advance so the interviewee is aware of the document he/she is being asked to sign.
  • The interviewee life history form is an important way to gather biographical information which may be needed for the project. Email or mail this form in advance and ask the interviewee to complete and to bring it to the interview to save time on the day of the interview.
  • At the location where the interview will take place, schedule an enclosed space for the interview where there will be minimal background noise and, ideally, no disruptions.


Day of the interview

  •  Arrive early enough to set up the equipment and start the interview on time.
  •  Arrive with all necessary equipment, paperwork to be completed, and questions.


The interview

  •  Test the recording device before starting the official interview to be sure the equipment is working properly.
  • Quick reminders: ask open-ended questions and listen well enough to ask good follow-up questions. Be patient; silence and pauses allow for formulation of responses (and questions). Don’t tell your own story; your goal is to capture the interviewee’s story. Stay in control of the interview, guiding an interviewee who strays from the topic. 
  • Let the interviewee know he/she will be receiving a CD of the interview and a copy of the transcript when the transcript is completed.
  • Thank the interviewee.
  • Gather all documents and equipment.


After the Interview

  • Send a note of appreciation along with a CD of the interview.
  • When completed, send a copy of the interview transcript.