Ramsey Library, Special Collections


How to conduct an Oral History – How to listen and ask questions


Oral Histories offer a real-life experience of someone’s history - their personal stories of their own life and the lives of the people around them.


The three steps are easy to understand: 1) Getting Ready; 2) Conducting the Interview; and 3) Completion of the Oral History.


Getting Ready

Prepare for your oral history interview by learning everything you can about the person you plan to interview. This will help you develop specific questions or otherwise tailor the interview to the unique perspective offered by that individual. Basic knowledge of your subject will also confirm to her your interest, and assist you in developing a rapport.


Be prepared for your visit with a notebook, several sharpened pencils and a cassette or video recorder (including extra tapes and batteries). Do a test run with the recorder.  Did it record your TEST?  Is the volume load enough?


Conducting the Interview

If you're taping the interview, begin by stating your name, the interviewee's name, the date and the location. Then, to help everyone relax, start with a few simple, easy questions; a story you've heard them tell many times; or even a little off-topic chit-chat. If your interviewee seems uncomfortable talking about herself, then ask some simple questions about her mother or grandmother.


Completing the Interview

Just because you've turned the recorder off doesn't mean the interview is over. Now is the time to say thank you, to chat about what you've learned together, and sometimes to hear even more stories. Be sure that the interviewee understands what you plan to do with the interview and is comfortable with the arrangements.
If you have recorded the interview, label everything - every side of every tape, the spine of the cassette box, and your interview notes. If you have multiple tapes, mark what tape it is (i.e. "tape 1 of 3").

Once you're back home, sit down and make a transcription of your interview. Then send a copy to the interviewee along with a thank you note.


As the interviewer, it is much easier for you to type up the conversation.  Given your transcript, your Oral History can quickly be processed and posted online   Feel free to read other Oral History transcripts to see how the document looks -



The best interview should be a conversation.  Asking open-ended questions helps, then offering a quiet space should follow