Tips for Taking Oral Histories

20 Nov 2012

Oral history is an important tool for genealogists. We often employ it, whether we realize it or not. Any time that you talk to a family member or client, and they convey information to you of any kind, you are conducting oral history.

Many of the genealogies compiled in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries were put together using oral history as a major component. Sometimes this was noted in the text, but, more often, it was not and the source of any particular piece of information remains unknown.

Oral HIstory Association

The Oral History Association (OHA), founded in 1966, is an umbrella organization for all those interested in oral history. Their membership includes academic scholars, archivists, journalists, librarians, local historians, students, and teachers from many fields. The OHA website contains a number of tips for conducting oral histories, including:


  • To prepare to ask informed questions, interviewers should conduct background research on the person, topic, and larger context in both primary and secondary sources
  • When ready to contact a possible narrator, oral historians should send via regular mail or email an introductory letter outlining the general focus and purpose of the interview, and then follow-up with either a phone call or a return email. In projects involving groups in which literacy is not the norm, or when other conditions make it appropriate, participation may be solicited via face to face meetings.
  • After securing the narrator’s agreement to be interviewed, the interviewer should schedule a non-recorded meeting. This pre-interview session will allow an exchange of information between interviewer and narrator on possible questions/topics, reasons for conducting the interview, the process that will be involved, and the need for informed consent and legal release forms.


  • Unless part of the oral history process includes gathering soundscapes, historically significant sound events, or ambient noise, the interview should be conducted in a quiet room with minimal background noises and possible distractions.
  • The interviewer should record a “lead” at the beginning of each session to help focus his or her and the narrator’s thoughts to each session’s goals. The “lead” should consist of, at least, the names of narrator and interviewer, day and year of session, interview’s location, and proposed subject of the recording.
  • Both parties should agree to the approximate length of the interview in advance. The interviewer is responsible for assessing whether the narrator is becoming tired and at that point should ask if the latter wishes to continue. Although most interviews last about two hours, if the narrator wishes to continue those wishes should be honored, if possible.

Post Interview

  • Interviewers should document their preparation and methods, including the circumstances of the interviews and provide that information to whatever repository will be preserving and providing access to the interview.
  • Information deemed relevant for the interpretation of the oral history by future users, such as photographs, documents, or other records should be collected, and archivists should make clear to users the availability and connection of these materials to the recorded interview.
  • The recordings of the interviews should be stored, processed, refreshed and accessed according to established archival standards designated for the media format used. Whenever possible, all efforts should be made to preserve electronic files in formats that are cross platform and nonproprietary. Finally, the obsolescence of all media formats should be assumed and planned for.

The holiday season provides many opportunities for conducting oral histories. Visit the OHA website for more tips to prepare for these opportunities.