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Oral History

Oral History Quick Start Guide


  • Oral history is a qualitative research method involving the collection, preservation and analysis of structured interviews with living witnesses to periods and events of historical significance.
  • Despite the name, it is a relevant and potentially valuable approach in all academic disciplines and community based research projects.
  • It can provide an important supplement and counterpoint to traditional (archival, quantitative, experimental) research methods.


  • Determine the research project and conduct background research to identify scope, topics and questions, and potential informants
  • Contact participants and arrange interview schedule
  • Determine, acquire, and test appropriate technical means (audio/video). ECOH recommends Olympus WS or LS series or Zoom H2 for digital audio.


  • Prepare a list of topics, rather than questions
  • Greet the interviewee, thank them, explain the project. Have them sign an informed consent and release form.
  • Be respectful, attentive and unhurried. Develop a rapport.
  • Ask open ended questions. Use 2 part (declarative; interrogative) structure for focus, follow-up and clarification.
  • Allow silence for reflection. Prompt or redirect only when necessary.
  • Watch for fatigue; 1-2 hours is about the limit of productive discourse
  • Ask if the interviewee has any questions to suggest or anything to add
  • Leave contact information and invite the interviewee to supplement the interview at a later date. Often the process of retelling jogs new memories and associations
  • Immediately after the interview, label the recording and write or record field notes describing the context, process and other considerations.
  • Make copies of the interview; index and label; transcribe; and deposit in appropriate archive.


  • The rights of informants as human research subjects and co-authors of the oral history record must be respected. Informed consent and release forms should be signed and collected. Forms are available at


  • Preservation is an essential function of oral history. Since living history is limited to the living, it is vital to collect and preserve testimony for future generations.
  • Make multiple copies and store in more than one place. Include permission and release forms as well as any other documentation, photographs etc. in the file.


  • Code narrative for themes, select quotes to substantiate thesis or analysis.
  • Cross reference internally and with other sources.
  • Larger collections may provide for comparative, aggregate, and even quantitative analysis.
  • While oral history is subject to the limitations and biases of living human memory, its object is not historical truth, but subjective human experience. Oral history may occasionally contradict historical fact, but it is not false testimony. More often it provides qualitative insight, supplementing the bare facts uncovered by other methods.
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