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Setting up your oral history interview

Once you have made all the necessary plans for your oral history interview (i.e. choosing your interviewee, doing the necessary background research, deciding on your topic and devising a list of questions) the next step is setting up your oral history interview.

When and where to hold your interview

Start by deciding with your interviewee when and where the interview should take place. If possible, hold your interview at your interviewee’s home. A home environment is more likely to be quiet and people typically feel more relaxed in their own home. They may also have photos and memorabilia they want to show you.

If you need to find an alternative venue, choose a quiet place where there are no distractions and where you are unlikely to be interrupted or disturbed by other people or background noises. If your interviewee prefers some where close to home, check whether their local library or community centre has quiet rooms you could book up in advance.

Avoid public places such as cafés or places where there are constant background noises. Sounds you are not particularly aware of during the interview can seem a lot louder when you play back the interview.  If necessary do a quick test run with your interviewee before you start to check that there are no extraneous background noises.

The legal aspects of recording and publishing an oral history

If you plan to add your recording to an archive or library, or publish the recording and/or transcript online, you must get permission from the person you interview. Without their consent you risk contravening copyright laws.

With a few exceptions, UK copyright law provides no mechanism through which interviews or recordings may be used extensively without permission. Taken from guidelines published on the Oral History Society website.

It is therefore important to ask your interviewee to sign a recording agreement which specifies how, where and when the recording can be used. Do a search online for some sample recording agreement templates or take a look at the  following example provided by the Oral History Society:

Oral History Recording Agreement 

Decide on the length of your oral history interview

Interviewing can be quite tiring for both parties and so don’t make it too long. 90 minutes is generally thought to be the maximum length. You will need to allow a bit of time for tea/toilet breaks during the interview. You will also need some extra time at the end of the interview for signing recording agreement forms, setting up any subsequent interviews, having a chat about how the interview went and thanking your interviewee for giving up their time and sharing their stories.

Getting ready for the day of your interview

A day before the interview contact your interviewee to make sure they are still happy with the arrangements for following day. Also check your travel plans for getting to the interview venue.

Check that your equipment is working properly and that you have whatever is necessary to power your equipment such as an extension lead, batteries, a charger.

Sort out any items, documents or forms you will need in advance of the interview (for example, pen and paper, the contact details of your interviewee, your interview questions/notes, a recording agreement, information about the interview etc.).

Setting up the interview venue

If you have arranged to hold your interview at a public venue make sure you get there before your interviewee. This will give you time to check the health and safety regulations, set up your equipment, arrange the seating etc. If you are meeting at your interviewee’s home ask them where they would like to do the interview. Do a quick sound test before you start, to check for background noise and to make sure your equipment is working.

During the interview

Start by explaining how you plan to do the interview. For example, reassure your interviewee that you will be happy to pause the recording at any time if they want to take a short break or if they need to answer a phone call. If the interview is quite long make sure that you both take a break at a suitable time. In general keep on recording unless they ask you to stop or if they want to tell you something in confidence. For the best sound quality place your microphone as close as you can you your interviewee.

Before you start recording, add you own general introduction as an identification tag (this should include your name, your interviewee’s name, the date, the location, the name and purpose of your interview/project and the names of any other people at the interview). For example: “My name is John Smith and I am interviewing Jane Brown on Tuesday January 26th 2021 at her home in Hampshire. Also  present is her husband David Brown.”

Take the lead from your interviewee

Although you are the interviewer be prepared to take the lead from your interviewee. For example, follow up on topics touched on by your interviewee even if they aren’t on your list of questions.

Avoid interrupting your interviewee when they are speaking—if an idea springs to mind make a note of it and bring it up when there is a natural break in the conversation. Similarly, don’t jump in the moment the person stops speaking. Give them time to gather their thoughts—they may still have more to say. 

Don’t be afraid to ask a question more than once if you think your interviewee hasn’t revealed as much as you think they could but avoid contradicting or questioning their responses.

Be a good listener and look interested—your body language will convey this. You can also give encouragement by saying things such as ‘that is really interesting’ but don’t overdo it. However, don’t be afraid to interrupt if you feel there is something that needs further explanation or clarification.

If necessary, ask your interviewee to confirm the spellings of people’s names, place names etc.

While you are doing the interview keep an eye on the time to avoid over running but don’t make it too obvious. From time to time check that your recording equipment is still working.

At the end of the interview

When you have finished the interview ask your interviewee if there is anything else they would like to add or whether they are happy with what has been covered. When you are both satisfied that everything has been covered, ask them to sign the recording agreement. Thank them for letting you do the interview and sharing their stories and make any further arrangements if necessary.

Related articles:

The oral tradition of storytelling and its role in history

Planning an oral history interview – how to get started

Recording an oral history interview – what equipment do you need?

Processing your oral history interview