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.

Some Guidelines for Transcribing Oral Histories


The primary record of an oral history interview is the audio recording. Transcripts provide a verbatim guide to the audio recording, reflecting the actual words, speech, and thought patterns of the interviewee. Transcripts may be reviewed by interviewees for corrections to place names and proper names, but otherwise remain unedited, unless for clarifications making the interview more accessible to researchers.


Speech Patterns and Language

  1. Most people are unaware that they use words such as “and,” “but,” and “so” to connect their sentences. They should be left in unless they become overwhelming.

    Contractions and Dialects - 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” since they do not really reflect a speech pattern.

  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. Example: “Well I−We didn’t hear anything about that.”

  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 test. 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 you think a section of the interview is potentially offensive or embarrassing to the interviewee and should be left out, 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. If non-verbal sounds occur at the end of a sentence, place the word in brackets after the final punctuation.

  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 combines 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.”


Information based on guidelines compiled by Regecca Boger, Project Assistant for Civil Rights Greensboro Digital Archive, 2008). She has 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.

Free transcription software, Express Scribe

Tips for Using Express Scribe

Interview questions and transcript from "Guilford's Integration, 1962 Before and After: An Oral History"