If You’re Thinking About Starting An Oral History Project
Sady Sullivan with Maggie Schreiner
There are many useful How-to guides, both in print and online, including great recording equipment tutorials. But before you dive into the nuts and bolts of project implementation, here are some things to consider:
Listen to oral history interviews
If you are planning an oral history project, or even just plan to do one interview, a great place to start preparing is by listening to archived interviews. This is even easier now that so many collections share full, unedited oral history interviews online1.
Through listening, you’ll get a sense of the pace and breadth of oral history interviews and what makes them different from journalistic or documentary interviews. You’ll start to hear differences in interviewing styles. And you’ll get ideas for what may work well for the goals of your project.
Listen for the moment when the Interviewer and Narrator/Interviewee settle into the rhythm of the interview and it starts to flow. Hear how some Interviewers are more comfortable with pauses and silences, giving the Narrator room to reflect and synthesize their thoughts. Listen for moments of connection and disconnection. Imagine the dynamic between the Interviewer and Narrator: Do they have a lot in common? Does the Narrator trust that the Interviewer will understand them? How does the Interviewer foster that trust?
Consider the strengths and challenges of Insider/Outsider interviews
There is no hard and fast rule about what kind of pairing of Interviewer and Narrator/Interviewee will make for the best oral history interviewing experience and resulting recording. Some Narrators feel more comfortable talking with an Interviewer with whom they share experiences and/or positionality (age, race/ethnicity, class/education, gender/sexuality…). Other Narrators feel more comfortable sharing their stories with an Interviewer who won’t understand their experiences as personally.
The challenge of interviewing someone you know, or whose experiences align greatly with your own, is that a lot may go unsaid because you both already understand it.
In that case, imagine the listeners of the future and what you may need to describe and elaborate on in order for future listeners to fully understand. Check out this podcast episode Code Switch: “Hold Up! Time for an Explanatory Comma”2 for a great discussion of what cultural references we assume everyone knows vs. what we think we need to explain.
The challenge of interviewing someone who seems very different from you at the start is building trust. In that case, be sure to listen to understand rather than respond; let the Narrator lead, and don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know.
Think about yourself as an Interviewer
Before you sit down with a Narrator, consider what perspectives, assumptions, curiosities, (implicit) biases, and limitations you may bring with you as an Interviewer. Consider also what perspectives, assumptions, curiosities, (implicit) biases, and limitations your Narrator may bring.
It is important to prepare for an oral history interview by doing as much research as you can to understand the time/place/event/person that is the focus of the interview.
What do you need to know in order to be an informed listener?
It is equally important to “shed your agenda” (to quote Anderson & Jack in their famous 1991 essay in Women’s Words3 so that you are open to hearing what your Narrator thinks is important and wants to share.
If you can, take an oral history interview training workshop or course. And then just go for it: we all have our first interview and we all get better with experience!
It’s ok to have boundaries
It is generous and brave for Narrators to share their life histories with us. And it is also generous for Interviewers to listen deeply, with great attention, and without judgment. Active listening takes a lot of energy. Set a time limit for your oral history interview sessions (1 - 3 hours). You can always plan to meet again for multiple sessions so you won’t feel rushed.
If there are certain subjects or topics that you don’t feel comfortable discussing, have someone else do those interviews.
If you find what a Narrator says offensive, you may consider whether you think this perspective is important to document for the historical record… Perhaps you can challenge their thinking in a way that is interesting to you… Or perhaps you can find a way to end the interview early if you feel it’s just not healthy for you to sit and listen to that.
Working with a team of interviewers
One of the unique strengths of oral history is that it is a collaboration between Interviewer and Narrator; it can be even more dynamic if you work with a team of interviewers. It’s great to have a group of people to have “hunch sessions” with (to quote Kennedy and Davis in their great oral history work Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold). Hunch sessions are brainstorming meetings where you generate a list of questions, topics, and themes for your interview guide. It is also really helpful to have colleagues to debrief with after interviews, both the wonderful ones and the difficult ones. It’s always helpful to listen to each other’s interviews and provide feedback. You can support each other.
- Check out Montréal Life Stories and Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations as good examples of oral history projects using the power of interviewing teams.
Make time for relationships and collaborations
Design your project to be responsive and adaptive to feedback. Relationships take time. Food always helps! Share as much as you can with Narrators—welcome them into the process from beginning to end. Listening Parties with narrators and interviewers and connected communities are a great way to welcome collaborative interpretation.
One obvious step, that often gets rushed in our eagerness to start interviewing, is connecting with the other people who are also interested in documenting this history; and/or talking about this topic; and/or organizing around this issue; and/or advocating for and with this community—ask them what they think about your potential oral history project.
Ask (don’t assume) about reciprocity
Find out what would be useful for Narrators and communities connected to this oral history project. Everyone should receive copies of their interviews for their personal archives—maybe they would also like advice on how to digitize family photographs or best preserve family papers? Maybe they would like space to talk about issues that are coming up in the oral history interviews, or an event to celebrate shared history? Perhaps Narrators should be paid for their time. Paying Narrators has long been the practice in anthropology/ethnography, but oral history guides usually advise against paying Narrators. There are many reasons to argue that just as Interviewers and Transcribers and Archivists are paid for their time, so should Narrators be paid accordingly.
Take some time to imagine any obstacles that potential Narrators may encounter when deciding to participate in your oral history project: Has this history been misinterpreted in the past? Does this history continue to be contested within communities involved? Is this history painful to remember? Are there any reasons such as safety (physical, emotional, legal) that could prevent a Narrator from going public with their stories? Keep in mind that because of the nature of oral history— broad-ranging interviews which can cover a lifespan, and address topics and experiences that Narrators rarely share in other contexts; intense emotions, unsynthesized thoughts—oral histories can be particularly private.
For example, even topical, or subject-focused interviews, can wind their way to vital stories about a family member’s health, or experiences of sexual violence, things that this Narrator may want to include in the historical record in the archives, details that can’t be un-entwined from their narrative, and yet they don’t want their employer googling it tomorrow listening to hours of private reflections.
Talking about painful, violent, and/or traumatic memories can stir up a lot of strong emotions in both the Narrator and Interviewer (and anyone else listening to the interview). It can be helpful for Interviewers to debrief with a colleague after a particularly difficult interview session. Also, Interviewers should be sure to check in with your Narrators in the days following an intense interview session to make sure they are doing okay. Consider what kind of support system, including affordable therapy for Narrators and Interviewers, you can build into your oral history project design.
Think about your audience
Who is this oral history collection for? Why? Who will be interested in this collection of oral histories today, in 5 years, in 20 years, and beyond? Your goals for audience engagement, both now and in the future, are useful to keep in mind before you even sit down with your first Narrator/Interviewee.
It is also useful to think about the long life of your oral history recording and how you plan to preserve it and make it accessible to other people now and in the future. This may determine how you record (audio or video), whether you transcribe the interview and/or index it, and what metadata you collect at the time of the interview.
If you are considering partnering with an archival repository such as a public library, university library, or independent archive, it’s helpful to talk to archivists there early and often! Archivists may have helpful suggestions for file-naming conventions, the latest optimal technical specifications for your a/v recordings, and how to organize metadata spreadsheets.
What Are You Going to Do with These Interviews?
- Write a monograph
- Produce a radio or film documentary
- Design a Digital Humanities project
- Build a curriculum
- Support movement building/sustainability
- Host public dialogues
- Balance authorship and collaboration
- Create sources for future research
“Metadata is a love note to the future.”
— Jason Scott, Internet Archive
Spreadsheets are a great way to organize your interview metadata because they can be easily imported to other archival tools used to catalog, such as Omeka. Start keeping track of interview metadata from the very beginning—interviews amass quickly once the ball is rolling! It is very helpful to have you, as the Interviewer, provide descriptive information such as an interview summary, narrator biography, and interviewer biography, as well as the basic information: interview date, length, language, file format, file size. Brainstorm important names, places, themes, subjects and other things you’d like to track across interviews that can be used as keywords (tags).
With your deep knowledge of the interviews and themes of the project, you will know best what terms are important to highlight so that this collection connects to other relevant resources, and also so that people will discover it via catalog searches in the library/archives and online. You will also know how best to reflect the language that your Narrators use so that they feel that the description of their interviews represents them with dignity and respect.
Your metadata spreadsheet is a good place to note any flags about access and privacy. Does the Narrator share something sensitive that they may not want to be made public on the open web? Perhaps, then, this interview should be for in-library-use only.
Things to think about if you are considering partnering with an archival repository for long-term preservation and access
- Will they care about this collection now and in 100 years? Check out their Collections Development Policy and look for collecting areas that align with your project.
- Will people come looking here to find this collection?
- How will the archive provide access Now and in the future—and does that work for your audience? For example, some university libraries require government I.D. for entry, which may be a barrier for undocumented people.
- What kind of restrictions are possible? Can interviews be closed for a certain time period? Can sensitive interviews be made available in-person only and not online? Can interviews be retracted from the archive if the Narrator requests? Is this enough to honor your promises to Narrators and keep them safe?
- Does the institution have the infrastructure and resources to safely preserve and migrate to the latest media?
- Will this institution be here in 100 years?
Informed Consent, Copyright, Release Agreements, Privacy, Defamation & all that legal stuff
- Rather than focus on the individual rights-based legal stuff, let’s think about all the oral history paperwork using a feminist ethics of care (inspired by Caswell & Cifor’s article “From Human Rights to Feminist Ethics: Radical Empathy in Archives”).
The point of “Informed Consent” is to make sure that you are transparent with your Narrators about the goals of your project and what they can expect to experience if they choose to participate. Some projects (especially under IRB) require a signed Informed Consent form, and other projects accomplish this through conversations, either on the phone or in person, prior to the interview.
The point of Copyright is to determine who can make decisions about access and use of these recordings, and also who can make money off of them (but I have yet to hear of someone making royalties on an oral history interview since they are usually “Fair Use” for educational purposes).
Legally, oral history interviews are a joint work—a co-authored document, co-created by the Interviewer and Narrator—therefore, both people hold the copyright. If you donate the interview to an archival repository, most repositories will request that you sign a form giving them non-exclusive copyright, which means that the Interviewer and Narrator both retain copyright (i.e. you can continue to use the recording in your own ways however you want); and in addition, the repository can now do what it needs to do with the recording to preserve, provide access, and allow researchers to use it. Some repositories ask for full copyright, meaning: Interviewer and Narrator sign away your copyright and you then have to cite the recording according to “Fair Use,” just like any other researcher. Now, some repositories are using Creative Commons licensing.
The Densho Digital Repository has a great page explaining how to use and cite their collections based on the different rights agreements.
Making oral history interviews available to the public is always a balance of access and privacy. Be thoughtful about what information and stories your narrators share, and discuss with them how they feel about making all that available to the public on the open web and/or in an archival repository.
Sometimes people worry about the risk of a defamation lawsuit caused by something recorded in an oral history; in fact, this risk is very low. The truth is, people rarely say slanderous things about other people in oral history interviews! That said, look out for an “Indemnity Clause” in any release agreement that you or your narrator are asked to sign. Some archival repositories include a phrase that basically says: If we get sued because of something you said in this interview, it’s on you, not us. And that just isn’t fair for the institution to put the burden of defending against a (hypothetical) defamation lawsuit on the back of an individual Narrator who has generously shared their life history. Release agreements can be negotiated until everyone feels comfortable signing.
The point of all the legal paperwork should be to ensure that everyone feels good about how an oral history interview is being shared both now and in the future.
Take Down Policy
Every online collection should have a responsive Take Down Policy, so if a narrator requests that their interview not be online anymore it can be quickly removed. This is especially true following recent changes in data privacy protections in the European Union with GDPR that American oral historians are also taking into consideration. For more on this, check out The UK Oral History Society’s response to new data privacy protections.
Funding & Who needs to get paid?
The big costs for oral history projects are paying people for their time: Interviewers (and sometimes Narrators), Videographers, Transcribers, Transcript Auditors, Archivists, Cataloguers, Educational Technologists... Other costs include digital recording equipment, a/v editing software, secure digital storage, web hosting, travel to and from interviews, thank you notes, and food!
Plan for preservation and access before you get started
Once a project gets underway, it’s easy to get caught up in the momentum! It’s a good idea to establish a plan for preservation and access before you get started. Start an interview metadata spreadsheet, where you can keep track of relevant information for each interview (see above for details). Create a folder structure on your computer where you will place interview recordings as they are completed. Decide on a consistent file naming system for your interviews - perhaps the name of the Narrator and the date of the interview. Pick file names that are reasonably short, meaningful, and that you will actually use.
The oral history project may instigate further interest in archives! Be prepared to provide further information to your Narrators about how to archive their family materials, digitize photographs or documents, or care for digital records. There are lots of resources out there! You don’t need to be an expert yourself to point people in the right direction. Check out the resources section in this appendix for suggestions. If a Narrator is interested in donating materials to an archive, provide support for this process. Many of the factors that you would consider for a partnership with an archival repository will also be relevant to your Narrators.
Bring it back to the community!
When you have recorded interviews, make sure people have a way to listen and engage (that doesn’t involve them coming to you). Oral histories can be incorporated into exhibitions, event programming, podcasts, writing, theater, visual arts, and more! Listening to recorded oral histories together is a great way to spark dialogues. Think creatively about how your community can hear these voices and stories.
As an Interviewer, you will learn a lot! And it is important to keep in mind that no matter how many interviews you do, and how much you know, you still can’t know this history in the way that the individuals and communities to whom this history belongs know it. So, if this isn’t “your history,” be humble and respectful while sharing your new knowledge. Stay open to being corrected and apologize for your mistakes and misunderstandings; work to repair misrepresentations.
Inspiring Oral History and Community Archives Projects
For example, check out Brooklyn Historical Society’s Oral History Portal http://www.brooklynhistory.org/library/oralhistory/ (accessed December 2, 2018) or the NYC Trans Oral History Project https://www.nyctransoralhistory.org/ or The Densho Archives https://densho.org/archives/. ↩
Meraji, Shereen Marisol and Gene Denby with Hari Kondabolu, “Hold Up! Time for an Explanatory Comma,” Code Switch. Podcast audio, December 14, 2016. ↩
Anderson, Kathryn and Dana C. Jack. “Learning to Listen: Interview Techniques and Analysis.” Note: This and other books and articles are listed in the resource section below. ↩