6. Conducting and Preserving Oral History Projects
These materials support the oral history workshop given by Zhijia Shen firstname.lastname@example.org and Justin Wadland email@example.com in Tacoma, September 2018. Information originally compiled by Deepa Banerjee firstname.lastname@example.org and Juan Luo for We Are History Keepers, November 2016. Revised by Conor Casey, Labor Archivist email@example.com March 2017. Revised by Lauren Adams, Curatorial Assistant, firstname.lastname@example.org, Ryan A. Donaldson email@example.com, Collections Strategy Manager and Archivist, Washington State Jewish Archives, and Melissa A. Seaburg, firstname.lastname@example.org, Curatorial Assistant, September 2020.
What is Oral History?
“First person access to history” - https://guides.library.duke.edu/c.php?g=733290
Augments, corrects or contradicts the written record
In some cases, the only documented form for what’s untold, neglected or forgotten
Identify historical questions not addressed by existing sources for “new” stories and varied spectrum of perspectives
Flexibility is intended
Responsive and adaptive to feedback
“An ideal project design integrates the broad historical timeline of an institution, community, or social movement with individual life histories.” http://bit.ly/oralhistoryprojectdesign
Three-part design: Pre-Interview, Interview, and Post-Interview
Formulate a central question or theme
Bring together the project team
Envision outcomes - what does project success look like?
Plan the timeframe
Conduct background research
Select potential Narrators
Per the Oral History Association Core Principles and Practices, “Narrator” is used rather than “Interviewee” or other terms - “as an acknowledgment that the people we interview have agency and are not merely ‘living human subjects.’” - https://www.oralhistory.org/narrator/
Formulate open-ended questions that centers the Narrator’s experience
Establish file format standards - audio/video recordings
Outline the tools & technology
Recording equipment and platforms
Tracking the project workflow
Create collections guidelines - will any other related material be accessed or donated?
Outreach to Narrator communities
Establish Informed Consent - “An agreement that documents, verbally or in writing, that the narrator has been given all the information necessary to come to a decision about whether to participate in the oral history project. Informed consent does not cover or deal with copyright. The interview process must be transparent, with ongoing participation, consent, engagement, and open discussion among all parties, from the first encounter between interviewer and narrator to the creation of end products. Informed consent plays a key role in ensuring transparency.” Oral History Association - https://www.oralhistory.org/informed-consent/
Optional: Obtain Biographical Form
Duke University Library: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Tlj6-GFbq9nfQWx8awSgRjyQd5RLJSyp-Sr7bs37D4s/edit
Obtain Signed Narrator Agreement Form
Necessary for donation to an archives or repository
Proof of permission required for publication, including books, websites, and documentaries
Sample Narrator Agreement Forms
University of Washington Libraries Special Collections, Labor Archives of Washington, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1LAK36gO-XWDb-IV0VVYda_iU3Jd56yEgcElTdPkPu8s/edit?usp=sharing
Fort Lewis College, Center of Southwest Studies http://swcenter.fortlewis.edu/Tools/sw-6.htm
University of North Carolina, Southern Oral History Program http://www.sohp.org/howto/forms/SOHPForms_interview_agreement.pdf
CSUF, Center for Oral and Public History http://coph.fullerton.edu/_resources/pdf/4.%20Narrator-Interviewer%20Agreement%20Form.pdf
Washington State Jewish Archives
Obtain Signed Deed of Gift Form
Necessary for donation to an archives or repository
Transfers physical & legal custody from the Interviewer to an archives or repository
The signed Deed of Gift together with the signed Narrator Agreement Form ensures access for future researchers and to share & publish
Sample Deed of Gift Forms
University of Washington: http://bit.ly/UWDeedOfGift
Ensure familiarity with all tools & technologies utilized for both Interviewer and Narrator
Establish Active, Informed & Mindful Listening for Interviewer
There are many audio and video formats available. Best practice is to choose uncompressed and nonproprietary formats whenever possible.
For example, .WAV for audio is preferable to .MP3 and .M4A formats.
There is not one preservation video format, so record in high resolution in uncompressed formats.
For final versions of signed forms, transcriptions, and electronic documents, use .PDF/A, which is the current ISO standard for long term preservation.
Create Subject Index
Periodic timestamps with brief description of topic
Share with Narrator for review, corrections and approval
Accessibility (closed-captioning for video)
Project File Management
Setting up a Shared Collaboration Space
Using a tool such as Google Drive can help centralize and share files, interview transcriptions, project handbooks, style guides, questions, and research resources, and to upload recorded interviews.
Google Drive with a free account has a limit of 15GB, and can be shared publicly or with specific people (such as the Narrator).
Please note that using Google Drive does not guarantee the long-term preservation of the files.
Digital Preservation & Storage
Lots Of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe (LOCKSS)
Make Copies and Store in Different Places - from Library of Congress:
“Make at least two copies of your selected audio [and video] recordings—more copies are better.
One copy can stay local on your computer or laptop; put other copies on separate media such as DVDs, CDs, portable hard drives, thumb drives or Internet storage.
Store copies in different locations that are as physically far apart as practical. If disaster strikes one location, your audio [and video] recordings in the other place should be safe.
Put a copy of the summary description with your important papers in a secure location.
Check your digital recordings at least once a year to make sure you can read them.
Create new media copies every five years or when necessary to avoid data loss.”
Evaluation and Surveys
Surveys for all project participants (Interviewers & Narrators)
Questions on experience of the process and seek opportunities to improve
Survey results to inform any Project Design adjustments
Oral History Project Examples
Black Oral History Interviews, 1972-1974, Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections, Washington State University, Pullman, WA.
The Black Oral History Collection consists of interviews conducted by Quintard Taylor and his associates, Charles Ramsay and John Dawkins. They interviewed African American pioneers and their descendants throughout Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, from 1972-1974.
SeaTac Seattle Minimum Wage History Project
In November 2013, the small suburban city of SeaTac passed Proposition 1, authorizing a $15 minimum wage policy phased in over several years; after surviving a lawsuit filed by business groups, the policy went into effect in January 2014. Six months later, the Seattle City Council, led by socialist council member Kshama Sawant and Mayor Ed Murray, expanded a similar $15 minimum wage policy to nearly 20,000 workers. These policy innovations arose from struggles by a broad coalition of labor unions and community partners around a host of issues concerning low wage workers’ rights in the years following the Occupy movement. Building on similar struggles for and by low wage workers around the nation, the victories in the Puget Sound catalyzed a proliferating array of campaigns to raise the minimum wage in many cities and states. This digital web archives documents the stories of those involved, as supporters and opponents, in or affected by the struggles over a $15 minimum wage at SeaTac and in Seattle as well as the broader, ongoing effects and efforts at a national level. Including 56 audio and video interviews with supporters and opponents who were in or affected by the struggles over a $15 minimum wage at SeaTac and in Seattle as well as the broader, ongoing effects and efforts at a national level.
If you know someone who was part of the SeaTac or Seattle organizing for 15 Now who would like to be interviewed or has materials they would like to donate to the Labor Archives, please contact us! Conor Casey email@example.com.
South Asian Oral History Project
The SAOHP represents one of the first attempts in the U.S. to record pan-South Asian immigrant experiences in the Pacific Northwest using the medium of oral history. This initiative not only has the goal of preserving the history of South Asian immigration to the region, but also of making these historical resources/material available to everyone.
History through Memories and Stories: Exploring Seattle’s Chinese Immigrant Experiences
This oral history project documents the life and experiences of Seattle’s Chinese immigrant community from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Mainland China, and other areas of the world.
Washington State Jewish Archives Oral Histories
Begun in 1968, the oral histories include approximately 500 interviews with early immigrants and refugees, businessmen and women, artists, political figures in the Jewish community, and many others throughout Washington State.
Guidelines for Remote Oral History Projects
It is important to note that conducting oral history sessions remotely is not traditionally considered a best practice. Not only can it be difficult to establish a relationship with the narrator without developing rapport in person, but the technical aspects of recording audio or video over the internet can provide its own set of unique challenges. However, in extenuating circumstances such as COVID-19, illness, or long distance, the use of alternate recording methods can be helpful to continue the documentation of oral histories. These extra guidelines should be taken into consideration for implementing an oral history project remotely in addition to the guidelines for best practices as seen in the prior sections.
Research and decide which format is best for the oral history project. Video recordings of the narrator and audio-only recordings are both possible to implement but require different types of preparation.
Free or paid video conferencing applications have been shown to be most user-friendly and easiest to implement.
If the narrator does not have an internet connection, they can dial into a video conferencing application using their phone and the session can still be recorded from the conference application. Using a landline, if available, is the best option to reduce the potential of dropped calls or sound interference.
Conduct a test recording to evaluate sound and video as well as to familiarize yourself with the recording processes of your chosen video conference application. It is preferable to do this with a friend or peer over a video conference to most emulate the oral history session.
Note, if recording locally to your computer, where the recordings are stored (typically in the downloads folder).
Evaluate sound and video quality to analyze if adjustments need/can be made to improve recording conditions.
Take care to maintain regular contact with your narrator via phone or email to ensure good communication. Their time and participation is just as important in a remote session as it would be if the recording was occurring in person.
Obtaining informed consent from all participants is still imperative while conducting remote interviews. While it may not be possible to procure a handwritten signature while practicing social distancing, there are options to obtain consent digitally.
DocuSign offers options to obtain electronic signatures on agreements such as informed consent or deed of gift documents.
Utilizing a simple survey form, such as Google Forms, can also be used for informed consent and to allow the narrators to choose options for their sessions (video versus audio only, if they would like to review the material, etcetera).
Have a backup recording of video and audio running while recording on the video conferencing application - If options are limited, audio recording/screen recording applications come bundled into most operating systems. It is highly recommended to test and try out the different recording softwares available. Not all software functions perfectly on different operating systems or are as easy to navigate for each person. Finding one that works well for you will make the process less frustrating!
Quicktime Player is included with Mac operating systems and can be downloaded for PCs:
DVD Video Soft - Free Screen Video Recorder https://www.dvdvideosoft.com/products/dvd/Free-Screen-Video-Recorder.htm
It is recommended to begin a video conferencing session before the recording begins. This will allow for the interviewer and narrator to test sound and audio (make sure all parties can hear each other!). This is also an opportunity to discuss guidelines for the upcoming session if needed and set all parties at ease by having a friendly conversation before recording.
It is a good idea to go over the basic controls if the narrator is unfamiliar with the software - if they accidentally mute themselves, it is important that they know how to unmute themselves!
If recording video, have both parties set their device in a location that allows for a clear, unobstructed view of their face. Ensuring that the narrator is in a well-lit area is also recommended.
The interviewer should ensure that they are in a quiet space so as to not distract the narrator while they are speaking. The best practice for the interviewer would be to use the “mute” function while not speaking.
Minimize distractions! Close windows and doors and inform others in the recording location that a session will be taking place.
Check to ensure all went smoothly with each recording and save locally to a designated location.
If utilizing options via some video conferencing applications for auto-generated transcriptions, download and save the transcript locally.
Video Conference Applications
Utilizing video conferencing applications for video recording can allow for all parties to see and communicate with one another, which can help to develop a relationship between the narrator and interviewer(s).
Video conferencing applications that allow for the recording of sessions give the users a choice of the view: speaker view versus gallery view.
Traditional oral history sessions are recorded with the narrator on camera and the interviewer off-camera but still audible while they ask questions. This can be done via recorded video conferencing applications by choosing a pinned speaker view for the account recording the session if recording locally. This will not affect the universal cloud recording. If recording to the cloud via Zoom, utilizing Spotlight View will highlight one user as the primary speaker and record only that speaker.
For less formal and more conversational oral histories, gallery view may be utilized to prevent a jarring cut while narrators/interviewers take turns speaking. Most video conferencing applications only offer this option if there are three or more participants.
Separate video conferencing applications have different guidelines for recording video sessions or may require a paid subscription.
Free Zoom accounts offer local recordings for up to 40 minutes. Paid Zoom accounts offer both local and cloud recordings. Cloud recordings come with a basic auto-generated transcript.
Google Meet and Google Hangouts allow paid subscribers to record sessions. This is relaxed through September 2020.
Skype allows for calls to be recorded to the cloud via the feature Call Recording for all users. It can be saved for 30 days in the cloud, during which time the recording can be shared or saved locally. https://www.skype.com/en/
CISCO Webex Meetings is a basic video conferencing application that permits for meetings up to 50 minutes and options for local recording included with free accounts. https://www.webex.com/video-conferencing
It is important to note that if using video conferencing applications, there are privacy and security issues that will need to be taken into account. Recording over an end-to-end encrypted session and implementing the use of a waiting room for conference participants are protective measures that should be taken while recording oral history sessions.
If the narrator will potentially divulge sensitive or personal information, a remote oral history project may not be the best method due to privacy and security concerns. It is the responsibility of the interviewer to ensure the privacy of personal information or, at the very least, to include in the consent forms with transparency that there may be risks associated with recording remotely.
Clear, coherent audio is an important aspect to consider while conducting oral history projects. While the principal reason for this is clarity (being able to hear and comprehend what the Narrator is speaking about is essential!), clear audio is critical for better long-term preservation, easier transcription and therefore better accessibility, and can provide opportunities for reuse in other projects, such as documentaries, podcasts, and others. Conducting projects remotely does not allow for the use of traditional in-person recording equipment, but there are options that can promote better audio reception in sessions if the narrator is comfortable with employing different types of technology.
Additionally, as mentioned above, the best quality in which to record audio is a WAV format. However, if recording audio from separate locations over a video conferencing application, options for types of audio recording may be limited to a specific format (most video conferencing/audio recording applications on computers and smart phones record in MP3/MP4 formats). There are guidelines that can be followed to try to capture better quality audio without the use of additional equipment.
The use of lavalier microphones with a USB port can ensure better quality and catch quieter sounds, words, or phrases with ease. If there is a sufficient budget for the project, these can be purchased and shipped for between $20-$60.
Most smartphones come preinstalled with a voice recording application, such as Voice Memos on iPhone or Android’s stock Audio Recorder, that will record superior audio to what is recorded on the video conference application. It is important to familiarize yourself with any of these applications prior to recording the oral history session.
Options for voice recording applications include:
Hokusai Audio Editor will allow for audio recording in WAV format, which is the recommended audio format for best practices in traditional oral history projects.
ASR Voice Recorder
The StoryCorps App has guidelines for “Creating Your Own StoryCorps Studio,” which offers tips for how to “sound-treat” a space in which an interview is taking place. These guidelines can be helpful to help a narrator choose the best space in their homes for recorded video and audio.
Separating audio from video and utilizing an application such as Audacity can help to reduce background noise, normalize audio to remove deviations in sound volume, or diminish unwanted feedback noises. These options, among other effects, generators, and analyzers that will assist in overall audio quality or effects, are explained in Audacity’s user manual.
Note: If editing audio back into a video of the interview, it is important to note that any cutting of audio time will affect the sync of video and audio. Try to use the tools provided in audio editing software to adjust the noise first before cutting the audio clip out entirely, or else you will also need to edit the video.
Note: Converting MP4 audio to WAV formats can be done using applications such as Audacity or other converters. However, this will not increase the quality of the audio of the original recording. It is best, if at all possible, to utilize technologies to record in superior formats such as WAV.
Oral History Resource List
Best Practices, Guidelines, & Templates
Beginning an Oral History Project - University of Florida SPOHP
Guidelines to assist oral historians prepare for their projects. Features an approachable “8 Step” method to conduct successful oral history projects.
Best Practices for Recording Remote Oral Histories- Washington State Jewish Historical Society
Includes tips and guidelines for recording with remote video platforms, in particular Zoom.
“Community Oral History Toolkit” Guidebook
This link goes to Worldcat, a worldwide library catalog. If you enter your zip code into the search form, you can find the closest available copy at a library near you. A handy guidebook by Nancy MacKay, Mary Kay Quinlan, and Barbara W. Sommer is the “definitive guide to all aspects of conducting successful community oral history projects that conform to best practices in the field.”
“Curating Oral Histories” Book by Nancy MacKay
This link also goes to Worldcat. Nancy MacKay's Curating Oral Histories (2006) has been the one-stop shop for librarians, curators, program administrators, and project managers who are involved in turning an oral history interview into a primary research document, available for use in a repository. In this new and greatly expanded edition, MacKay uses the life cycle model to map out an expanded concept of curation, beginning with planning an oral history project and ending with access and use. The book guides readers, step by step, on how to make the oral history "archive ready"; offers strategies for archiving, preserving, and presenting interviews in a digital environment; and includes comprehensive updates on technology, legal and ethical issues, oral history on the Internet, cataloging, copyright, and backlog.
Interview Tips & Resources - Veterans History Project - American Folklife Center - Library of Congress
Includes practical advice on preparing for and conducting an interview, as well as sample Biographical Data Form & Accepted Media & Formats table.
Oral Histories in the Digital Age
This site contains dozens of excellent resources from top professionals nationwide. There are essays, case studies, and tutorials on a wide range of topics, from picking out which equipment to use and planning your first oral history project to creating accession workflows and making your interviews publicly accessible
Oral History Association Web Guides for Conducting Oral History Projects
Annotated list of resources. Prepared by Linda Shopes, updated August 2012.
Oral History Association Webinar – Oral History at a Distance https://www.oralhistory.org/2020/03/26/webinar-oral-history-at-a-distance-conducting-remote-interviews/
Recorded webinar from March 31, 2020 with excellent discussion, summary, Q+A and supplemental resources.
Oral History One-Pager - Duke University Libraries
Practical tips for recording oral histories that truly fit onto one page!
Oral History Society - Advice on Conducting Oral Histories in the Covid-19 Pandemic
Organized into in-person and remote oral history advice.
Oral History Workflow Template: University of Washington Libraries Special Collections, Labor Archives of Washington
A template was developed by the SeaTac Seattle Minimum Wage History Project that could be of use as a project management tool for other community-based oral history projects. Please contact Conor Casey (firstname.lastname@example.org) for access or help.
Recording During the Coronavirus Pandemic:
Transom’s guide to some best practices for in-person recording, along with a lot of alternate options for recording remotely.
Sample Cataloging Form: University of Washington Libraries Special Collections, Labor Archives of Washington
This form was developed to capture the information about the interview directly from the interviewer and feeds into a spreadsheet hosted on the SeaTac Seattle Minimum Wage Project Google Drive space. In this way, we were able to capture important information about the interviews and link that information to specific audio or video files before we completed editing, transcribing, and processing the interviews.
Sample Project Oral Interview Protocols, File Naming Conventions, Uploading and Cataloging Instructions: University of Washington Libraries Special Collections, Labor Archives of Washington
Developing file naming conventions and common practices between interviewers, transcribers, catalogers, and other members of a project is important. Even if there is only one or two people working on a project over time, agreeing upon and documenting these decisions is a good idea so that they are recorded for people who have to administer or access the collection in the future.
Southern Oral History Program: Resource Page
Compilation of resources on conducting oral histories, tools, samples, and related resources.
The Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interviewing Guide
Revised edition last updated in 2016. Includes PDF download of the guide.
Step by Step Guide to Oral Histories
Compiled by Judith Moyer (1993, revised 1999) containing guidelines, suggestions, issues, and bibliography.
Steven Sielaff, “Brave New World: A Guide to 21st Century Technology for Oral History”
Article published in the Journal for the Texas Oral History Association.
University of South Carolina Remote Interviewing Resources and Guidelines
Provides links and guidelines to Covid-19 remote oral history projects as well as a webinar from OHA and Baylor University.
Additional Articles & Information
“How to Record Calls on Your iPhone” - Liz Stinson and Josie Colt https://www.wired.com/story/record-calls-with-your-phone/
Options for recording telephone calls via the iPhone smartphone using applications and hardware.
“If You’re Thinking About Starting An Oral History Project” by Sady Sullivan with Maggie Schreiner
Useful set of additional considerations prior to launching an oral history project.
Oral History: From Fact Finding to History Making
An article that proposes oral historians approach their projects with the methodology of “history shaping” rather than using interviews as fact-finding authoritative sources.
“Presenting Your Findings” - Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Includes suggestions for projects based on oral history interviews, including cookbooks, exhibitions, digital scrapbooks, and other creative ideas.
“What is Oral History?” Oral History Centre - University of Winnipeg
Brief overview with orientation video.
Technology, Tools, and Platforms
“A Brief Guide to Basic Technology Planning for Oral History Projects” by Kim Mann - Academic Technology at the College of William & Mary
Includes discussion of selecting technology based on project requirements, including audio only, video, testing equipment, and additional resources.
Asana - https://asana.com/
Project management tool that includes free and paid versions.
“Ask Doug - Recorders” Oral History in the Digital Age - http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/askdoug/
Includes an online form that incorporates budget and other project requirements to provide product suggestions.
Audacity - https://www.audacityteam.org/
“Audacity is a free, easy-to-use, multi-track audio editor and recorder for Windows, macOS, GNU/Linux and other operating systems.”
Basecamp - https://basecamp.com/
Project management tool that includes free and paid versions.
DocuSign - https://www.docusign.com/
Manage electronic agreements and signed forms and digital signatures.
iMovie - https://support.apple.com/imovie
iMovie is a free video editing application that comes built into each Mac computer system. The program utilizes a drag and drop model for editing.
Otter.ai - https://otter.ai/
Auto transcription tool that uses Artificial Intelligence to speed up the review & editing process.
Reaper.fm - https://www.reaper.fm/
Powerful audio editing software available for purchase or a sixty day free trial.
The StoryCorps App - https://storycorps.org/participate/storycorps-app/
Free mobile app that provides opportunity to upload the audio to the Library of Congress and the StoryCorps Archive platform.
Transcribing Style Guide - Baylor University Institute for Oral History
A style guide for editing and transcribing oral history sessions. Includes guidelines for common interview transcription issues such as false starts, interruptions, repeated phrases, and more.
Societies and Organizations
Oral History Association (USA) - https://www.oralhistory.org/
A membership organization for oral historians and for others committed to preserving the value of oral history, fostering best practices, encouraging support for oral historians and their projects.
H-OralHist - https://networks.h-net.org/h-oralhist
“H-Oralhist is a network for scholars and professionals active in studies related to oral history. It is affiliated with the Oral History Association.”
International Oral History Association - http://www.ioha.org
A worldwide forum for oral historians to communicate and collaborate on oral history practices, processes, and endeavors.
Texas Oral History Association - https://www.baylor.edu/toha/
“TOHA is a network for oral history practitioners that promotes the use of professional interviewing and archiving standards.”
Voice of Witness - https://voiceofwitness.org/
A nonprofit organization that works to amplify marginalized voices and stories through the process of oral histories, book series, and other projects. Features several webinars on oral history projects, guidelines, and curricula for educators.