How to conduct an Oral History Interview

This Oral History Interview Guide is a resource for community researchers interested in recording Oral Histories (audio/video). The Guide is also downloadable HERE

Jane Goodall and Peter Trist, the University of Newcastle, Australia, 1986

The Project was inspired by a similar program undertaken by the University of Newcastle that was part of the Open Foundation Course (1986-1989) – known as the Margaret Henry Oral History Archive held at Special Collections, the University of Newcastle Library. This online Guide aims to revive stories of our region and its surrounds, by recording voices that describe cultural, intellectual and social life.

So that you may conduct your own Oral Histories, below are basic instructions on practice and methods of how to do an Oral History Interview, use of technologies in recording, links to other resources, as well as ethical practices of oral history (Guidelines, Copyright, and Conditions of use). We also recommend Oral History NSW for advice and support.

The following covers some basic steps in conducting an Oral History Interview.

STEP 1:
WHO TO INTERVIEW

You can choose someone who has an interesting story to tell. It could be a friend, relative, or someone you know. They may talk about where they used to work, a family business, a place they grew up, or people that they knew.

Here are some others themes interviewees may talk on:

Indigenous Stories, LGBTQ, Women’s History, Local Identities, Migrant Histories, Health & Medicine, Religion, Maritime, Sport, Communications, Unions & Politics, Law & Order, Retail, Environment, Heritage, Protests, Society and change

Have a listen to some of the Oral Histories from the 1980s, for ideas and inspiration HERE – Oral History Collections


RESEARCH TIPS

When you have chosen someone to interview (and they have given consent), you can be guided by your initial contact during informal conversation about a topic that could be covered in an interview, it is also a good idea to ask them to complete a written Interviewee Information Sheet before the formal interview. This will provide some background information about the interviewee.

When you are clear about a topic, it is a good idea to do some general background research. For example, if the person worked in a particular profession or industry you may want to explore this. It is important to have some general understanding of the topic of the interview so that you can formulate suitable questions. Many sources are available on-line, or you may consider contacting Family History and other Historical Groups for support with research. Local studies at the Newcastle Library, as well as local libraries, museums and historical societies, have historical material associated with the Hunter Region. Also, you might want to look at Trove. It has online collections from Australian libraries, universities, museums, galleries and archives.

STEP 3:
WHAT QUESTIONS TO ASK IN THE INTERVIEW

The more you know about a person before the interview, the more you can adapt questions to gain useful and valuable answers. Here are some Sample Outline of Questions you can use in an Oral History Interview. Revise these accordingly in line with a person’s specific interests and life experiences.

STEP 4:
TIPS FOR CONDUCTING ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW

How do I ask the questions?

In general, have a basic idea of the themes that will be covered – for example – Work history, growing up in a particularly suburb etc.

  • Have your first question well planned
  • Open rather than closed questions
  • Remember silence is good
  • Positive body language and being pleasant
  • Give interviewee time to respond to question, don’t interrupt!
  • Don’t be too worried if the interview goes off track
  • Ask the Interviewee for specific examples
  • Ask follow-up questions and then ask some more


STEP 5:
ETHICAL PRACTICE – GRANTING PERMISSION

It is essential to liaise with the interviewee in an honest and respectful manner. Explain to them why you would like to conduct an interview, and allow them to discuss with you what they are happy to talk about, and what they prefer not to discuss. You must attain a signed Consent or Condition of Use Form from the interviewee, and the interviewee always has a right to review, correct and/or withdraw anything in the interview- or grant permission at all. They must be given this opportunity after the interview has been conducted. It is important to discuss Ethical Practice Guidelines, the process, and granting permission with the interviewee. Here is a Sample Condition of Use Form.

  • It is the responsibility of the interviewer to protect the rights of interviewee
  • It is important to ensure objectivity, honesty and integrity

See further information about permissions and ethical practice here – Ethical practice (Oral History Australia)

 

WHERE CAN RECORDINGS BE KEPT IN PERPETUITY?

Oral Histories (audio/visual) can be made digitally available on numerous social and streaming platforms. This includes YouTube, Facebook , Instagram, Spotify and SoundCloud. If you do not already have one, you will need to create an account on the platform that you decide to upload your Oral History (with permission of Interviewee).

Special Collections at the University of Newcastle will consider donations of oral history recordings in accordance with our Art and Special Collections Framework and donation submissions procedure. To enquire further please send details to HERE.  If agreed and permission granted, the original audio or audio-visual files can be stored in perpetuity and made available to the community online via Special Collect Living Histories repositoryHunter Living Histories Website and Special Collections YouTube site.

STEP 6:
WHAT DEVICE(S) TO USE

Technology today enables us to easily record Oral History Interviews. It is up to you as to the device/s you want to use to record the interview. Below are some points to guide you:

  • Professional handheld devices – Professional handheld devices are the best option to attain a good quality audio recording. A professional handheld device is a good investment if you are serious about doing Oral History recordings.
  • Digital camera – If you are recording a video of the interview, you may choose to use a digital camera.
  • Apps for Smartphones and devices – Both Android and Apple smart phones and devices come with audio and visual recording apps. You can also download other audio and visual recording apps from the app store if necessary. Once you have used your smart phone to record the audio and visual elements, you may be able to edit them on your device or smart phone too.
  • Laptop or desktop computer – You may decide to transfer the files to a computer for editing instead. There are many ways to transfer the audio or visual files to a computer. This includes sending them via email, connecting the smart phone to the computer with a USB cable, connecting through Bluetooth, and sending them on Facebook Messenger.
  • Traditional cassette audio tapes – An audio tape recorder can be used, however, we do not suggest the use of older style cassette tapes. The sound quality is not optimal and cassettes are more difficult to digitise – the University of Newcastle’s Special Collections can digitise cassette and analogue tapes, yet, it is a more complex process.
  • Record a ZOOM session – this is not ideal, however for interviewees in remote areas, or participants unable to meet physically, this may be a good option. For further information see this online webinar.
  • The University Library has a Micro Studio (Room L307) available to University of Newcastle students and affiliates.  BOOKINGS HERE

Further information on devices can be found here – What device to use.

 

STEP 7:
EDITING & TRANSCRIBING AUDIO RECORDINGS

Most audio digitally recorded can be edited using free audio editing software, such as Audacity. Audacity has many useful audio editing functions, such as cut, copy and paste, reduce noise, and convert file formats. A beginner tutorial on using Audacity is available here – How to use Audacity for beginners (video tutorial). Other free audio editing software is available and can be accessed through a simple Google search. Adobe Creative suite has Adobe Premier Pro and Adobe Audition for editing video and audio.

If you have taken a visual recording, as well as audio, there are also many options for free video editing software. When using a Windows, Linux, or Apple operating system, you can use Shotcut. If you are using an Apple computer, it may have come with a free video editing program called iMovie. Beginner tutorials on how to use these programs are available on YouTube. There are also many other free video editing software alternatives available that can be accessed through a simple Google search.

Making a summary or transcript of your recording is recommended as best practice. This will allow your interview to be more search-friendly when uploaded on the web, as well as providing clarity and better access for the hearing impaired. Otter is a free online app for transcribing recorded interviews.

This post was revised and updated by Oliver Salmon (WIL student, Semester 1, 2022)

For further information, please send an enquiry to the Special Collections Team

This Oral History Guide (with Attachments) is also downloadable HERE


OTHER RESOURCES

Oral History Instructional Video – AMaGA Victoria

JD Somerville Oral History Collection – State Library of South Australia

Oral History – Records and Archives Office – UNSW

24 Questions you should ask your parents, while you can – Amy Gibson

Oral History Australia – Oral History Australia home page

How to use Audacity for beginners (video tutorial) – Kevin Stratvert

Oral History and Folklore – National Library of Australia


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