Designing an Oral History Project

Mine Workers lined in cars
Mine workers lined in cars in front of mine opening.

Developing an oral history project requires considerable planning and resources, everything from defining the nature and scope of the project to selecting appropriate recording technology, from identifying both interviewers and interviewees to deciding whether or not to transcribe interviews and determining how to process them. Managing an oral history project requires the qualities of any good manager: an ability to retain the broad view while paying attention to numerous details, skill in juggling multiple responsibilities, flexibility, patience, and interpersonal skill. It also requires a solid grounding in the principles and protocols of oral history.

The following are some of the key issues and components of an oral history project.

Assess Where You Are

In a grant proposal, this would be written up as "background."

Carefully define the topical and temporal focus of the project. What historical questions are driving the project? Why are they important or significant? And what contemporary concerns have led you to these questions? In what context have they arisen? Focus the project as much as possible - too many oral history projects wander all over the place with no coherence or depth.

What do already know about the subject of your inquiry? Who can best answer the questions you have posed?

What connections do you have, what contacts have you made or can you make with the people you wish to interview? If the focus is a community, defined either by locale or by some defining feature like occupation or religious identity, do you have or will you develop a group of community advisors? What role will they play? What role have they played to date? In general, what support do you have from the community for this project? How will you maintain or generate this support?

Have you or will you identify scholarly advisors, namely content specialists and those with expertise in oral history? This is especially important if you are seeking grant funds - funding agencies need assurance of this kind of quality control. How will these advisors be involved in the project? What role have they played to date?

What resources do you have - people, equipment, money, etc? How will you obtain additional resources?

Define Your Goals

What do you want to accomplish with this project? How do these goals address the questions and concerns noted above?

Why is this work important, to you and to the community? What is the project's significance? What is its projected impact?

How does this project mesh with your institutional goals?

Outline Your Methodology

Outline specifically how you will accomplish your general goals. Try to think through every step involved in actually doing an oral history project: what tasks need to be accomplished, who will do them, and according to what schedule. Throughout, pay attention to how you will produce quality work.

How many interviews will you conduct? How will you identify and select narrators? For how long will you interview these narrators - do you envision one session, more than one, many sessions? Approximately how long will each session last? On a grant proposal, it is helpful to attach a list of potential narrators, noting those who have already been approached about being interviewed and who have consented to an interview.

Who is going to do the interviews? How will you recruit and train interviewers? How will their work be monitored?

What kind of background research - primary and secondary - will you do for the entire project? Who will do this research and how will it be shared with interviewers?

What kind of equipment will be used? How will you obtain it?

What topics will you interview on? In developing a proposal, it is helpful to append an outline of topics and subtopics, perhaps developed in conjunction with advisors.

What is your interview methodology? How will you make initial contact with a potential narrator, develop and sustain rapport? How will you inform them about their project? Will you use a biography form to get background information around which you can structure your interview?

Are there any potentially sensitive questions pertinent to the subject of your inquiry? How will these be handled within interviews?

What about a release form - attach a sample of the form to grant proposals.

Will you collect other material (photos, personal papers, institutional records, etc.) in the narrator's possession in conjunction with the interviews? How will this be managed?

How will you process completed interviews? Will you summarize, transcribe, audit check, send to narrators for review, correct, edit, index? Who will do this work?

How will you make interviews available and accessible to others? Where will they be archived? What precautions will be taken to insure responsible use? How will others find out about these interviews for their own research? Will they be listed on major data bases? What finding aids will be available for the collection? Will any material be available via the internet? Accessibility is a particular concern for funding organizations, who want their investment to have long-term value.

What "products" are envisioned for the interviews? Will it be a book, and if so, will it be scholarly, popular, or some hybrid? Are they being conducted for a film or video, or perhaps for a series of newspaper articles, an exhibition, or a web site? If you do plan any such outcomes, how will that be accomplished? What steps are involved in that process and who will do the work?

Alternatively or in addition, will you have public programs in conjunction with the project - a public reminiscence session, a community panel, a lecture, etc?

Who will have oversight over all of this? Who is the project direct?

How long will all of this take? It is advisable to develop a timeline - what will happen when, on a weekly or monthly schedule.

Develop a Budget

Possible costs include:

  • Equipment: recorder(s), microphone(s), microphone stand(s), recording media – cassettes, flash, CDs, DVDs, transcribing machine(s)
  • Travel/per diem: for interviewers to interviews, for advisors to meetings.
  • Personnel: project director (how many hours/days @ what rate) interviewers (hours/rate), transcriber(s), editor(s)/indexer(s), etc; also those involved in developing any product, e.g. finding aid, film, publication
  • Honoraria: to advisors; to narrators (rarely done)
  • Telephone and supplies; postage

Additional Resources

Several excellent guides develop more fully the steps involved in developing and executing an oral history project. Among the best print guides are:

Ritchie, Donald A. Doing Oral History, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Thompson, Paul. The Voices of the Past: Oral History, 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Yow, Valerie Raleigh. Recording Oral History: A Practical Guide for Social Scientists, 2nd ed. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 2005.

For a more complete list, please to go to the Oral History bibliography or see other resources on the web in our Links section. Also, the Oral History Association has set the standard for oral history, with its Evaluation Guidelines.