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Structured Oral History Interview

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STEP ONE: Who, what, where

Sometimes an interest in oral history is sparked through meeting or hearing about a remarkable person in our community. Other times it grows out of a curiosity about some aspect of local culture or history.

Having arrived at this page, you have probably already decided that the story you want to record has significance for a larger audience and/or is likely to shed light on an event that would be of interest to future historians.

Before proceeding, it is crucial to decide where your interview will be accessible or archived. This first decision will affect many other choices throughout the process including the length of the interview, choice of interviewee, method of recording, type of consent form, and final edited form.

There are many different groups–tourism groups, local museums, and cultural or ethnic centres, for example–that are interested in archival-quality oral history interviews, particularly if the interviews focus on local culture.

In order to produce something that will be used, rather than simply stored, it is essential to consult with the targeted organization, before beginning your project to determine what type and length of recording is preferred. Many organizations also have websites and are looking for audio podcasts or short videos to include on their sites. Whether or not you find such an organization, it is crucial that you prepare a consent form that will give you the option of showing portions of the interview on the internet.

Once you have decided by whom, where, and in what form your interview will be made public, you may be able to use one of the organization’s standard consent forms, or you can adapt a consent form using one of the templates provided in Appendix A. The consent form should be brought to the Pre-interview.

Now you can begin looking for the best interviewee for your project. If there’s more than one potential subject available you might want to consider recording two or three people in order to present more information and different viewpoints. Although you may already have someone in mind, it is still worth looking over the list of qualities below. The more of these characteristics a subject has, the better the interview will be.

Qualities of a good oral history interviewee

  • has an engaging, extroverted personality
  • has clear, detailed memories, especially of the things you want to record
  • has personal memories, not just second-hand information from books or other people
  • remembers the emotional subtext of the story and can communicate it
  • has a strong, clear voice and can be easily understood
  • has good pacing while speaking, (e.g., not too slow, not too quick)
  • enjoys telling stories and wants to share his or her experiences with others
  • has additional memorabilia (e.g., photographs, medals, artifacts, etc.)

STEP TWO: The pre-interview

The pre-interview is another essential component of the process. Unlike with a personal memoir, where you usually know the interviewee, the pre-interview is often the first meeting with an individual and is an excellent way to get beyond your superficial knowledge of the interviewee. Before you ask people to share some of their personal lives with you, they need to be able to trust you and agree with the goals of your project. One of the purposes of a pre-interview, therefore, is to permit both of you to get to know each other. The pre-interview usually takes from 30 minutes to an hour. Its importance cannot be overstated, and eliminating it would be the equivalent of buying a car without having taken it for test drive.

The pre-interview checklist

  • Begin by introducing yourself, your project, and why you want to interview the individual.
  • Explain how the interview will be recorded, who else, if anyone, will be present during the interview, and approximately how long the interview will take. The more details you provide, the greater the sense of transparency and trust you will create. (*See Equipment and Setting in the Structured Oral History Interview section of this guide)
  • Most interviews take about 45 minutes. This allows both interviewer and interviewee to warm up, go into depth on a few significant stories, maintain concentration, and avoid fatigue.
  • Explain who will have access to the interview and where will it be accessed and/or archived.
  • Since the interview will be made public, the individual must sign a consent form. Have the form with you and be ready to explain it. Make a second copy to leave behind. This will enable the individual to take time to look it over and to confer with a family member or friend.
  • Exchange contact information in case the interviewee thinks of questions after you leave. This will also enable you to send the individual information before of the actual interview.
  • Have some prepared questions ready to ask at the pre-interview. If you already know the subject you are interested in exploring, it is better to confine your questions to that topic. If you are not sure, you can use the Ten General Questions to ask in a pre-interview in the Memoirs section of this guide.
  • Take notes or bring an audio recorder so that afterwards you can decide the specific things you want to focus on in the actual interview.
  • Pay attention to the interviewee’s voice, speech, pacing and details of the stories as the individual responds to your questions. Keep in mind the Qualities of a good oral history interviewee to help you decide if this is the best person to interview.
  • Find out if the interviewee has any photos or other memorabilia that can help to illustrate his or her stories, and ask for permission to use the memorabilia during the interview. Check the condition of these items and take a few photos. Later on, you can decide where and how to incorporate the memorabilia into the interview.
  • Look over the house to see which room is the most appropriate for conducting the interview. (*See Equipment and Setting in the Structured Oral History Interview section of this guide)
  • Ask if the interviewee would like to have a copy of the questions or general topics in advance. It helps decrease nervousness in some interviewees.

STEP THREE: Questions: The Art of the Interviewer

As an interviewer, your greatest tools are your ability to listen and to ask questions that keep the interviewee focused, talking, and moving into ever richer veins of memory. It is a skill that almost everyone can acquire, but it requires practice.


  1. Create subject headings
  2. Using your notes from the pre-interview, decide which experiences or stories are the most relevant, interesting and powerful. These will become your subject headings when you begin making your questions.

  3. Organize your questions in chronological order
  4. Arrange all questions in chronological order even within your subject headings. Using a time line helps a person access the memories and makes it easier to edit your interview into a narrative. It also helps prevent the interviewee from wandering off topic, becoming confused or forgetting parts of the story.

  5. Do your homework
  6. Research the topics you intend to ask about before writing your questions. This will help you to write meaningful questions and will provide you with the background knowledge to ask appropriate spontaneous questions.

  7. Avoid complex questions
  8. Questions that ask for too much information can be confusing. For example, rather than asking, “Can you tell us about your experiences in the Korean War and how these experiences changed you as a person?” it would be better to ask, “What specific tasks were you assigned to do as a medic in the Korean War?” Posing a series of smaller questions helps the interviewee to stay focused, and enables you to decide whether to pursue a line of questions or to move on, depending on what the person answers.

  9. Practice makes perfect, or at least better
  10. Practice your interview skills on friends or family members. Learning to listen and to ask open-ended and probing questions is a skill that can improve with practice.

Three Main Types of Interview Questions

  1. Open-ended Questions
  2. These are questions that cannot be answered with one or two words. These questions require longer, more elaborate answers and permit the interviewee a wide range of responses. For example, rather than asking, “Do you think society has changed for the better or worse in the past 25 years?” it would be better to ask, “In what ways has society changed in the past 25 years?

    Some ways to phrase open-ended questions include: “Can you describe…?”; “What was it like when…?”; “Tell me more about…”; and “What did you do when….?

    For variety, you can occasionally ask a closed-ended question (which requires only a one-word answer). For example, “Did you like the village better before or after amalgamation?” However, this type of question should immediately be followed with “Why?” to elicit details.

  3. Probing Questions
  4. This type of question helps to deepen the conversation. Use it whenever you want to know more about an idea, experience, or emotional reaction. For example, “So, you say that it was more difficult fishing with the old-style nets. Can you explain why?

    Probing questions arise spontaneously out of what the interviewee has just said, so the key is to use active listening. This means concentrating on what the person is saying, rather than rehearsing what you are going to say next.

    Pay attention to facial expressions, body language and tone of voice to sense whether to probe deeper or move on to another topic.

    Do not get too attached to your script of pre-prepared questions. Relax, listen, and allow your questions to arise naturally.

    Some ways of asking a probing question are: “Can you elaborate on that…?”; “Why do you say that…?”; “How did you come to that conclusion…?”; and “What did you learn from that…?

  5. Paraphrasing Questions
  6. These are used primarily to clarify a previous comment or to have the interviewee define a technical term whose meaning has changed over time.

    For example, if the interviewee describes how a task was performed in the past, you can check to see if you have understood the description by asking, “So, are you saying…” You may then summarize what you heard and ask if it is correct. You can also use a paraphrase style question to introduce another question.

STEP FOUR: Equipment and Setting

  1. Use the best equipment possible to record an archival-quality structured oral history interview. The microphone is especially crucial as the voice is far more important than the interviewee’s looks.
  2. All equipment should be digital to facilitate downloading, editing, preserving and copying.
  3. If you are working alone, set up your recording equipment in such a way that you do not have to adjust or think about it at all during the interview.
  4. Bring a digital camera to photograph memorabilia. If possible, borrow the interviewee’s old photos to scan at home. Scanning will produce a higher resolution image.
  5. If someone else will be operating the equipment, make sure that this person is as unobtrusive as possible.
  6. For a video recording, sit a little in front and to the side of the camera so that the interviewee will focus on you, rather than on the camera, and so that the audience will see the interviewee’s full face rather than a side view.
  7. For an audio recording, face the interviewee and sit as close as is comfortable in order to have both voices at the same volume.
  8. The best location for the interview is usually the interviewee’s own home. It is the place where the person is most comfortable and where the chosen items of memorabilia are easily accessible.
  9. The choice of rooms is crucial. Select a room with natural lighting and a wall that is not cluttered with distracting background pictures. Avoid seating the interviewee in front of a window which will create a silhouette effect. Choose a room with as little distracting noise as possible. Be aware of traffic, overhead fans, refrigerators, computers and any other ambient or intermittent noise. These noises are hard to edit out later and often make it difficult to hear the person being interviewed, especially if you do not have a professional quality microphone.
  10. If the spouse is going to be present, request that he or she sits in another room during the interview. This will prevent the temptation for cross-talk between the couple and diminish extraneous noise.
  11. Pay attention to seating. Avoid chairs that squeak and, if possible, seat the interviewee at a table in a standard chair with the memorabilia nearby.
  12. Minimize all unexpected noise. If possible, turn off the ringer on the telephone. Turn cell phones off, since even the noise from the vibration setting can be heard on a recording.
  13. If it is not possible to use the interviewee’s home, find an easily accessible, nearby location with a room that has as many of the above-mentioned features as possible.

STEP FIVE: Best Practices during the Interview

  1. Do a sound and lighting check before beginning, and ask if the interviewee would prefer to be addressed during the interview by his or her first name or Mr., Mrs. or Ms.
  2. If you are recording a video, centre the person on the screen with only the upper torso (above the elbows) visible.
  3. Begin the interview by identifying the interviewee, interviewer, date and location of the interview. Without this crucial information your interview cannot be properly archived.
  4. Have your questions ready, but do not use staples. The less noise you make with your papers the better. Have a few pieces of blank paper and a pen (pencils are noisy) to jot down probing questions.
  5. Remove any jewelry that could make noise, and avoid fidgeting with rings, pencils, paper, etc. Be aware of shuffling feet or fidgeting hands (interviewer and interviewee). If the sounds are repeated, pausing the interview to eliminate them is preferable to trying to eliminate them later.
  6. Be aware of your own body language. Keep a relaxed, open posture, with arms uncrossed and hands unclenched.
  7. Speak slowly, enunciate clearly, and adjust your volume so that the interviewee does not have to strain to hear your question.
  8. Acknowledge that you are listening by using non-verbal communication as much as possible. This includes a smile when appropriate, a nod of the head, eye contact, or a concerned look.
  9. Be sensitive to silences, pauses, and the flow of emotions in people’s voices or body language. Allow the interviewee time to collect his or her feelings or recall a memory, and let him/her know in advance that it is always an option not to answer a question.
  10. Recalling old memories can stir up strong emotions. If the interviewee starts to cry or to choke up, stay in your role as interviewer and avoid words of sympathy. Show your compassion by being attentive, patient and silent. Only stop the interview if the person requests it.
  11. Schedule debriefing time after the interview. It is important to help the individual process any thoughts and feelings that may have arisen during the interview. This is also an excellent time to relax together and share positive feelings about the experience.
  12. The best way to thank an individual for participating in the project is to provide a copy of the unedited interview as well as the shorter, edited version that you create.

STEP SIX: Producing and archiving a structured oral history interview

Once the interview is completed, you are ready to begin editing what might be several hours of recording time into something as short as just a few minutes.

Editing is an art in itself. If you have the knowledge and software you can do it alone. However, if you do not, it would be best to find someone who is willing to collaborate with you.

If you are producing a podcast, please see the document entitled Design Guide. This an excellent resource on how to create podcasts as well as other design elements. If you are producing a video documentary there are many user-friendly softwares available for both Macs and PCs.

For your own sake, remember that all media can become corrupted over time. It is best, therefore, to save your work in more than one format, such as on a USB key, a CD, an external hard drive, as well as on your computer.

An ethical consideration: Although you technically possess the “proprietary intellectual rights” to the oral history interview you produce, it is worth thinking about your motive for conducting the interview. If your goal is to create something for future historians, then it is better to donate your interview to a museum or similar institution, where it will be available to researchers for years to come. Sadly, many people who have collected old photos or made oral history recordings regard these as their own personal property and are unwilling to share them with others. The tragedy is that many wonderful documents end up getting lost, damaged, or thrown away. The choice of whether to donate or to retain ownership is yours, but it is a decision worth thinking about seriously.

Appendix A: Consent Forms


Click HERE to download a sample of a thorough consent form between the interviewer, a museum to whom the interview will be donated, and the interviewee. It may be adapted for use with any institution with whom you have agreed to work, and to whom you are willing to give proprietary rights over your interview.


Click HERE to download a sample form that is extremely simple and wide-open. It is the best one to use if you do not have a museum or other organization with whom you are working.

This consent form asks the interviewee to give all reproduction and publication rights to you personally, with the understanding that it may, at some point, be shown in a public forum. It also allows you to sign over publication and reproduction rights at some future date when a suitable place is found to archive your interview.