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Oral Histories at the Rakow Library: How to Collect Oral Histories

A guide to the oral history collection at the Rakow Research Library, including recordings and tips.

Oral History Best Practices

Before the oral history

  • Contact the narrator ahead of time and let them know what to expect. Give them a general sense of the topic you are interested in hearing about. Agree to a length of time for the interview.
  • Use the best digital recording equipment within your means to reproduce the narrator’s voice accurately. Become familiar with the equipment and how it functions.
  • Prepare an outline of topics and questions to use as a guide for the oral history.
  • Document your preparation and methods.

During the oral history

  • Conduct the oral history in a quiet room, free from distractions.
  • Record a “lead” at the beginning of each session to help focus the narrator’s thoughts to each session’s goals. The “lead” should consist of, at least, the names of the narrator and interviewer, the time and date of the session, the location, and the proposed subject of the recording.
  • Ask open-ended questions, and show interest in what the narrator talks about through your body language and occasional verbalizations.

After the oral history

  • Store and share the recording and any associated materials appropriately for the medium and subject.
  • When processing the interview, strive for intellectual honesty and avoid stereotypes, misrepresentations, and manipulations of the narrator’s words. If a project deals with community history, be sensitive to the community.