Topic: Help - Oral History Interview Tutorial
Merriam-Webster defines oral history as, "...recorded historical information obtained in interviews concerning personal experiences and recollections."
DoHistory.org defines it as:
...the systematic collection of living people's testimony about their own experiences. Oral history is not folklore, gossip, hearsay, or rumor. Oral historians attempt to verify their findings, analyze them, and place them in an accurate historical context. Oral historians are also concerned with storage of their findings for use by later scholars.
Anybody can be an oral historian. It just takes time, effort, and a little know how to be on the right path to starting a study. The Orange County Library System is making it easier for Central Floridians to become oral historians through a website called Orlando Memory.
Orlando Memory is a community based digital archive. It provides members with an opportunity to share their personal history of Central Florida with the community. Members can add photos, videos, audio recordings, and comments to help weave a thorough community history. Orlando Memory is free to join and anybody can view its content at www.orlandomemory.info.
While Orlando Memory allows for the uploading of any content pertinent to Central Florida, the purpose of this tutorial is to assist community members in the traditional practice of one on one interviews (either written or recorded) for the purpose of preserving stories of the Central Florida area.
By utilizing this tutorial, community members can become oral historians and use Orlando Memory to archive their work!
Determining a Subject
Before the research for an oral history study can begin, a subject should be determined. Will the study be about a person's life, a popular business from years gone by, or maybe about an important historical event that happened in the community? With whatever subject you choose, try to identify at least one individual who can share a first hand experience about it.
Possible candidates for an oral history study can be:
- The life of a long time Central Florida resident.
- A social or political issue pertinent to the area as told by a community member that was involved in it.
- An organization of importance to the area such as a business, government agency, religious gathering, etc as told by a key figure in the organization.
These are just a few examples of subjects to choose from. When it comes to oral history, no story is too small to be shared thoroughly!
Contacting the Subject
Once a subject is determined for an oral history study, the subject should be approached about participating. This can be done in person, by phone, e-mail, or through a letter. It is important to explain to the interview subject the intention for the study and where the final product will appear. This contact should include the important who, what, where, when, and why information.
The contact should also include a request for a time and location for the interview to take place. Remember to set a meeting location that both parties feel comfortable and safe at. Also provide a phone number and/or e-mail for the subject to get back to you.
Typical interviews last between 30 to 40 minutes. Make sure to schedule enough time to set up any necessary equipment, conduct the interview, and break down the equipment. Typically a two hour block of time will be enough.
It is always helpful to include a note about how you will follow up if the subject does not get back to you first. It is also recommended to offer the subject a copy of the interview when completed. Here is an example letter:
Dear Mr. Smith,
My name is Lisa Jones and I am interested in interviewing you about your experiences with the civil rights movement in the 1960s for an oral history study I am conducting. My uncle Peter Jones, who worked with your son for several years, mentioned you as a good candidate for an oral history study.
I am participating in a program initiated by the Orange County Library System called Orlando Memory (www.orlandomemory.info). Orlando Memory is a website that encourages members of the community to share their memories through photos, interviews, documents, and more. The emphasis of the study is to allow the community to highlight any person, place, or subject that is important to them in telling our area's history.
The interview will involve you and I sitting down for a 30 to 40 minute long conversation about your story. We can meet at a centralized location of your choice. The Orange County Library System offers study rooms that we can also utilize. The whole process will take about two hours.
If possible, I are also interested in digitizing any old photos or documents you may be able to bring. The final product will be uploaded to the Orlando Memory website and I will provide you with the interview on CD for your own archives.
I hope that we can capture your story! I can be reached at email@example.com or 555-555-5555. Please let me know if you have any questions. I will call you Tuesday if we don't touch base before then.
Sometimes a subject may reply with an uncertainty to the interview request or that his or her story is not interesting. It is important to emphasize the fact that everyone's story is important and that the interview will be a comfortable conversation about a topic the subject knows very well.
Once a subject has been chosen, and a meeting time scheduled, begin research to find out more information. While the interview itself will reveal many unknown facts, it is helpful to go into the interview session with a prior knowledge of the subject's history. This will help you develop better questions and be able to bring up topics the subject may not have considered discussing.
There are numerous resources available to research a subject:
- Micro film - Check the public and university libraries for their microfilm collection. Microfilm contains miniaturized photographs of past and present magazine and newspaper articles as well as other resources that may contain information on your subject. Most libraries have an index that can be used to search the microfilm collection.
For instance, Lisa may want to look up information about the civil rights movement in Central Florida to become more acquainted with the topic.
- Databases - Check the public and university libraries for database resources. Databases are digitized versions of past and present magazine and newspaper articles and other resources available through the computer that may contain information on your subject. Databases are typically fully searchable and can often be accessed from home with a library card. The OCLS databases can be found at:
For instance, Lisa may want to look up Mr. Smith's name to see if any articles were written about him.
- Books - Check the public and university libraries for books that may contain information on your subject. The OCLS catalog can be found at:
- Online - There are various online resources such as Google and other powerful search engines that can be utilized to find information on your subject.
- Pre-interview - It will be helpful to ask the interview subject a few questions prior to the full interview. This will give you a chance to verify information found during research and get any basic facts needed to form in-depth questions. It may also be helpful to speak with associates, friends, or other individuals knowledgeable about your subject for the same purpose. This can be an opportunity to get names of people, places, and things you can research to become more familiar with the topic.
Once you have conducted all research necessary the process of selecting questions can begin. It is important that questions not only relate to the topic of discussion but also lend themselves to essay style answers. This means staying away from questions that can be answered by a simple "yes" or "no," but questions like:
"Can you explain to me some of the hardships you witnessed during your civil rights campaign?"
It is best to begin and end the interview with general questions the subject can answer with ease. This will help the subject become more comfortable with the interview process. Once the subject is relaxed, in depth questions can be introduced to more favorable responses.
StoryCorps provides an excellent resource for generating questions at www.storycorps.org.
Depending on the subject's comfort level, a few different methods for recording the interview can be used:
- Written interview - The final product will be presented in a written form. With each question and answer presented in sequential order. This is similar to how magazine interviews appear.
- Audio interview - This is the most common form of oral history recording formats. It provides a chance to hear all the inflections in the subject's responses and helps provide a better representation of the subject. This method will be the most discussed in this tutorial. Most interview subjects are comfortable with this method. Even when doing a written interview it is not uncommon to record the interview first and then transcribe it to text.
- Video interview - Another option is to video tape the interview. Some subjects are uncomfortable with having their faces on camera and this element may keep them from answering questions comfortably. Take this into consideration before choosing this format. If you do choose this format make sure to use a room that is well lit and that the subject is framed in the middle of the screen.
It is best to ask the interview subject what format he or she is comfortable with at the time of planning the interview.
Conducting an Interview
Once the questions and format have been determined it is time to conduct the actual interview. Different steps will be taken depending on what format you choose for the interview. In all instances it is best to make a checklist of items that will be needed to conduct the interview. Here are a few suggestions:
- Pen and paper
- Laptop or desktop computer with a "mic in" jack and/or a USB jack. Alternatively, you can use a digital recorder, tape recorder, or video camera.
- Microphone stand or other device for "hands free" operation of the microphone.
- Audio recording software such as Audacity which is free at audacity.sourceforge.net.
- List of questions.
- Camera for taking photos of interview subject.
- A document scanner to digitize any photos the subject may bring.
The following steps are provided to walk you through the interview process. The instructions primarily focus on an audio interview, utilizing a computer and the free recording software Audacity. However, these steps can be applied to any format with some modification:
Find a quiet room where you can set up your equipment. Make sure the room has little echo. You can reduce the ambient sound levels in the room by turning off the air conditioner and/or any unneeded fluorescent lights. If you are video taping the interview you may want to leave the lights on for image clarity.
You should have a computer or headset microphone with a standard 1/8" plug on the end. You can also use a USB microphone. Plug the microphone into your computer's "mic in" jack or USB slot respectively.
If you are using another recording device, it should have come with an internal microphone. If not, a microphone with a 1/8" plug should work on most recording devices.
If using a computer, open your audio recording software. There should be an option to choose which audio input you want to use for recording. In Audacity this appears as a drop down menu located on the top right of the program. A standard microphone input will typically be labeled "mic" or "line in." If using a USB microphone your audio recording software will either list it as an input option or you will need to follow your USB microphone's manual to install and select the USB microphone as the primary recording device. The USB microphone will then appear in your recording software as one of the options or the only option.
Many laptops come with an internal built in microphone. It can be easy to accidentally record an entire session with this lower quality internal microphone and not realize it. Make sure your recording software is using the external microphone you have plugged in. If you do not have an external microphone for your computer or recording device, the internal microphone will work but be aware the sound quality will be lower.
Place your microphone on a stand or other "hands free" device. Touching the microphone excessively can cause distracting noise in the recording. If you have to re-arrange the microphone, do so while not asking or answering questions.
Before you begin your interview it is wise to conduct a quick test recording. Position yourself and the interview subject next to each other, both facing the microphone. Keep close to the microphone but not so close that the air released when speaking hits the microphone. If you are too close, you will hear a pop noise on the recording when speaking words beginning with a "p" or "b." Project your voices and speak clearly.
Click the "record" button and ask the interview subject a sample question. Once the question is answered press the "stop" button to end the recording. Plug your headphones in the "headphones" jack on your computer or recording device. Now play back the recording and listen for any problems such as one person speaking too softly, background noise, or issues with the microphone volume. Make corrections as needed.
Now you are ready to begin recording the interview. Click the "record" button and allow a few seconds to go by before beginning. Begin asking the interview subject your questions. The idea is to get a comfortable conversation going between you and your interview subject. It is okay to detour away from the original questions in the interview as well. The idea is to learn about the interview subject's experiences and the best material may come from unexpected questions and answers.
Once the interview is over be sure to thank the interview subject and let them know how much you appreciate their participation. Have the subject sign a release form that allows the interview to be published on Orlando Memory and elsewhere. (See end of document for release form.)
Now is also a good time to take a photo of the interview subject, scan any photos and documents the subject has brought, and attend to any other details.
If the interview has been recorded on an external recording device , such as a tape recorder or digital recorder, then the audio of the interview will need to be put onto a computer. Most modern digital recorders will provide an option to transfer the audio file to the computer through USB or a memory card.
However, if you are using a digital recorder or a tape recorder that does not feature this option then the audio file will need to be imported through a different method. You can use a standard 1/8" audio cable with two male ends. One side should be plugged in to the "headphones" jack on the recorder and the other end into the "mic in" jack on a computer. Refer to the earlier instruction on setting up a microphone for recording on a computer, as this is the same process.
Play back the recording on the external recorder and then press "record" in the audio software. The software will record what the external recorder is playing back thus digitizing the original recording. Once the recording is done playing press stop in the audio software.
Once the interview is complete you should save the project immediately. You don't want to lose an extensive interview due to a computer crash! Once you have saved your interview you can make any necessary edits to the content. Edits can be anything from removing small pauses in the conversation or entire questions. Once you have finished editing, save a new version of the project. This will allow you to have access to the edited interview as well as the original version.
Once you are satisfied with the interview, export the interview as a ".wav" file and an ".mp3" file. The ".wav" file will provide you with the highest sound quality but will have a large file size. This file should be used for archiving purposes and burning to CDs for sharing.
In Audacity go to "File" and then "Export As WAV." This will export your interview to a ".wav" file.
The ".mp3" file will have a slightly lower sound quality but will provide a file size small enough for Orlando Memory's 15mb per file limit.
Audacity does not come with the ability to export to ".mp3" by default. You will need to download and install LAME Mp3 Encoder. Refer to this link for instructions:
Once you have installed LAME Mp3 Encoder, open Audacity and go to the "Edit" menu and click on "Preferences." Next click on the "File Formats" tab and you will see an area labeled "MP3 Export Setup." In this area you can set the Bit Rate for exported ".mp3" files. The lower the Bit Rate, the lower the sound quality, which in turn creates a smaller file size. "32" (as in 32 kbps) is an appropriate Bit Rate to provide acceptable sound quality and file size.
Once you have set the Mp3 preferences in Audacity go to "File" and then "Export As MP3." This will export your interview to an ".mp3" file ready for upload to Orlando Memory.
Uploading to Orlando Memory
Now that you have created an ".mp3" file the interview is ready to be uploaded to Orlando Memory. An account on Orlando Memory must be created for any content to be uploaded.
Go to www.orlandomemory.info and then click on "Register" in the upper right hand corner. Orlando Memory is built for optimal use on the free web browser Firefox (www.firefox.com). It is advised to install this web browser for use with Orlando Memory.
Once at the registration page, fill out the required boxes:
- Login - This is what you will use every time you want to upload content or participate in a discussion.
- E-mail - A confirmation message will be sent to your e-mail account with instructions on activating your account.
- Password - Enter a unique password twice.
- Username - This is the name that other users will see when they browse Orlando Memory and view content uploaded by you or when you post comments in the discussion area.
- First and Last Name - Enter your first and last names here.
- Security Code - Enter the security code provided. Remember that the text is case sensitive.
Finally, click the "Sign up" button to complete the registration.
You will then receive an e-mail with a link that you must click to confirm your registration. You will also receive a code you can use to activate your account if the link does not work.
On the top-right corner of the page, there should be a login link that will take you to the login page. Enter your login and password information. If you forget your password, use the provided link to have your password sent to you.
Remember, you need to be logged in before you can add new content to Orlando Memory.
From the Orlando Memory front page, click "Browse" then choose the type of item you would like to add from the tabs. You may choose from Topics, Images, Audio, Videos, Web Links, Documents, or Discussions. In this example, we will add audio. Click the "Audio" tab then scroll to the bottom of the page. Click on "Add a new Audio".
You will be taken to a page where all the details for the audio file will be entered. Enter a title and a description for the file. Next, enter some tags for the item. Tags do not need to be words that already exist in the title or description.
A keyword search will find content by examining the tags associated with different items. Tags can describe the people in a photo, the location in a video clip, the speaker heard on an audio clip, or anything that will help another person discover the content you are adding.
Click "Browse" and select the audio file on your desktop.
Finally, click "Create" to submit the content for moderation. All content, except discussion posts, will be reviewed by a library staff member before it is posted for public view.
Also consider uploading photos from the interview, images of documents related to the interview, or other related content.
Creating a Topic
After uploading the individual pieces of content you will want to create a topic to link it all to. Think of the topic as a starting point to access all the other content you have uploaded. The topic will include all the general information about the interview - the who, what, where, when, and why.
From the Orlando Memory front page, click "Browse" then choose the "Topic" tab. Scroll to the bottom of the page and click on "Add a new Topic".
You will be taken to a page where all the details for the topic will be entered. Select the topic type that best fits your interview. Next, enter a title and a description for the topic. Then enter some tags for the topic. This information can be the same information you entered for the audio file.
Click "Create" to submit the topic for moderation. All content, except discussion posts, will be reviewed by a library staff member before it is posted for public view.
Once the topic has been moderate you can return to your topic and link the content you previously uploaded.
Viewing and Linking Content
From the Orlando Memory front page, click "Browse" then choose the type of item you want to view. You may choose from Topics, Images, Audio, Videos, Web Links, Documents, or Discussions. After a tab is selected you will be taken to all the content that has been uploaded or created under each tab.
In this example, we will view Topics. You will see the five most recent topics created. To view more topics use the "previous/next" buttons or click on "Show 5 10 20 50 results on this page" to view more topics per page. You can also utilize the search bar at the top of the page to locate a specific topic, image, or any other content by keyword.
Once you have opened a topic, note the "Related Items" section at the bottom of the page. In this section you can connect various topics and pieces of content together. For instance, click "Link to related topic" or "Link audio." A pop-up window will open where you can navigate to the related item then click on the check box next to the item to link it.
The Orange County Library System hopes this tutorial has provided helpful assistance to community members seeking to conduct an oral history study. Thank you for making Orlando Memory a powerful archive for the community to share their own history!
Consent for Participation
I hereby grant permission for _______________________________________ (name of person) to appear in person or in voice, video or photographic presentation for radio, television, website or print media reports and/or media campaign(s) resulting from participation in an oral history study, conducted on ____________________ (date).
Participant Signature ____________________________________ Date: ________________________
Parent/Guardian Name (print) ___________________________ Date: ________________________
Parent/Guardian Signature ______________________________
Parent Phone Number