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Guide to Conducting Oral History Interviews Background Image

Guide to Conducting Oral History Interviews

The COVID-19 Pandemic lockdowns mean that many of us are spending a lot of time at home. Have you been listening to tales of previous life-changing events as told by older family members or friends? Have you considered recording them, but do not know where to start? If yes, then this Guide is for you!

There are a number of things about an oral history that you need to know in order for it to be successful. Whether you plan to capture a rambling conversation or a more formal discussion, you need to ask ​yourself some questions before you start conducting an interview.​

Unidentified family photo
 970-29 Unidentified portrait fondly called “Granny with the boys” by Archives’ staff.  Copyright:  Public Domain.


What do you want to achieve? Talking with someone is an incredibly valuable experience in and of itself. You can simply record a good old chinwag between two people, or you can deliberately set out to capture someone’s knowledge through a formal interview.

Ask yourself three questions:

  1. What do I want to know?
  • I want to know the names of my great-grandparents. 
  • I want to know what Grandma did when she was in the Navy. 
  • I want to know where all Dad travelled when he worked in Sales for General Electric.

2. What do I hope to accomplish?

  • I hope to capture Grandpa’s stories of growing up on a farm.
  • I hope to understand what it was like going to school during the 1960s.
  • I hope my grandchildren will learn about my grandparents.

3. How do I want to capture the information?

  • I want to be able to hear Mom’s voice and laughter as she tells the story of how she and Dad met a summer camp.
  • Grandpa is too hard of hearing to participate in an oral interview, but I will capture his stories through a series of e-mails.
  • I want a video of my Aunt Mary talking about the various pieces in her art collection.

Practical details re. equipment 

You can use any of one of a great many high- and low-tech options to capture a conversation or interview. Select one that both of are comfortable using. Make sure the equipment – whether it is a dedicated digital recorder, on-line meeting app, video camera​, cell phone, word-processing software, or a ballpoint pen and pad of paper – is in good working order and you know how to use it.

  • Think about how you will approach someone with your desire to capture his or her knowledge. ​​
  • Look for someone who is more than willing to bend your ear on the desired topic; unwilling participants will not respond well to your questions.
  • Create a list of possible topics, rather than a set of scripted questions.
  • Your questions should be designed to get the person talking and then gently keep them talking.
  • Come up with open-ended questions that are topic-oriented and will encourage thoughtful responses. They begin with words or phrases such as:
    • What do you think of … ? 
    • How did you feel about … ? 
    • Describe what it was like to … ? 
    • What do you know about … ? 
    • What made you decide to … ? 
    • If you could have picked any [career, pet, hobby, travel destination…] what would it have been? Why? 
  • Avoid topics that may be particularly painful to someone. 
  • Refrain from asking about the best or worst experience the person ever had. 
  • Keep your notes organized. 
  • Make point-form notes about what might need clarifying later, or about a topic for future discussion.
  • Be prepared to respond kindly and gently if the person suddenly develops stage fright and has nothing to say.
  • If you do not get what you were hoping to get, schedule another conversation. They will be more willing to talk again if they enjoyed the exchange you just had.
  • Welcome spontaneity; sometimes the best information comes out when the person seems to go off topic.
  • Be sensitive to subtle clues and reactions, especially those tied to pauses in the conversation which may indicate: 
    • a need to collect thoughts to answer the question; 
    • a topic the person does not wish to discuss; 
    • a temporary distraction;  
    • a lost train of thought; 
    • fatigue or boredom. 
  • Keep the conversation to the amount of time agreed upon beforehand.
  • Hold your conversation in a quiet space. Other people, pets, TV, radio, telephones, etc. will create distractions and interfere with a recording.
  • Keep an eye out for oral-history bombers. They are the uninvited passers-by who decide to join the conversation and immediately derail it.
  • Be respectful of the person’s knowledge, and appreciative of the time they are taking to share it with you. 
  • At the end, be sure to say the full name of the person you were talking with and their relationship to you, as well as when and where the conversation took place.  
  • Use a conversation starter such as a physical item (family photograph, military medal, jewellery, or other heirloom), or news of a specific event and how it might relate to past events.
  • Be an attentive listener, and be flexible about the direction the conversation takes.
  • Gently steer the conversation in a different direction if the talk turns to gossip or disparaging remarks about someone. 
  • Remember that this is not the time to raise your own opinions. 
  • Relax and enjoy your time together.   
  • Remember to be patient when someone is talking.  
  • Remember the outcome of your conversation depends on your ability to make the person feel comfortable enough to open up and keep talking.   
  • Be sensitive of how​ the wind is blowing and guide the conversation to different channels when necessary. 
  • Refrain from frequently interrupting the person to ask for clarification or for them to repeat themselves.  Let the conversation flow and fill in unclear or missing details later. 
  • Do not belabour a point. 
  • End the conversation with the hope that you can talk again soon. 

There are a few things you should do now to ensure that the interview is accessible down the road, especially if it requires digital preservation.

  • Back up a recording on several different media – USB, CD or DVD, external hard drive, and/or in the Cloud. 
  • Mark your calendar to regularly check to see if the files are still accessible. 
  • Note that upgrades to hardware, software, and operating systems may have a negative impact on your digital files. 
  • Transcribe the interview and make print copies. 
  • Consider donating a copy of the interview to the Simcoe County Archives.  Please note that the Archives is obligated to respect provisions of legislation regarding Privacy and Copyright.  For more information about the legal requirements please see the Deed of Gift and Informed Consent​ forms.