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Oral History - Methodologies and Sources

This guide brings together information on oral history methodology as well as a list of select oral history collections and resources at Duke Libraries.

Interview logistics

A significant piece of oral history work goes to managing logistics.

  • Keep files related to the project centrally located.  
    • Create a last/first name folder on your hard or cloud drive.  If your project has multiple interviews, create a project folder and then create a consistent and logical folder structure within your project folder.  Ask yourself the question: If I was to eventually donate these interviews to an interested archive, would they understand the structure? If your answer is yes and all seems common-sensical, good.  If not, try thinking through the structure of your project.  Sometimes this very act can help you organize your thoughts regarding the interview(s) and theme(s) even further.
    • Use consistent and logical file names for the documents you create for your project and interview.  For instance, prefix all associated file names with the project name or abbreviation,  e.g. "mycoolproject." Then a description of the document including the last/first name of your narrator and document type.  For instance, "mycoolproject_cooljoe_questions.”  For iterations of documents, use the “v01, v02…” convention, and if necessary a brief semantic explanation, for instance, “mycoolproject_cooljane_questions_v02_myedit.”  In short, all iterations of related documents should be together and the final version should be easily identified.  You can use this naming structure for documents, spreadsheets, and the audio and video of your interviews too.
    • A reasonable file structure might look something like this.
  • Contact the narrator, if this has not been done.
    • Store the narrator’s name, street address, phone number, and email in a spreadsheet if there are multiple interviewees in a project.  Otherwise store the information in a text document.  Save the file, appropriately named, in the collection folder.
    • Establish with the narrator how best to correspond, where to send the list of questions and a copy of the release form for her/his review.  Neither you nor they want any surprises!
    • Agree on a date and time.  Try to keep a two-hour window open just for interviewing.  If possible, do the interview before lunch, or try to start in the morning – narrators are often more energetic at this time of day.  With some exceptions, most interviewees will significantly tire after two hours, so for longer interviews consider doing multiple sessions over several days.
    • Build in time for technical setup in the space.  For audio interviews, allow an extra half hour, for video, a full hour at minimum, if possible.
  • Endeavor to give the list of questions to the narrator at least 72 hours ahead of the interview, to provide time for modifications but also to allow the narrator time to reflect on the topics.  The element of surprise, while perhaps constructive in journalism, isn’t appropriate for an oral history.
  • Know your recording equipment, ensure that it’s working.
  • Forms to bring to the interview:
    • Four copies of the release form (two for the interviewer, two for the narrator) with the appropriate information already filled in.
    • The log sheet, which can be filled in ahead of time except for the “Running time” and “Notes” fields.
    • The topics sheet, where topics covered can be informally written and related to time within the interview.  It’s wise to print two of these.
  • Complete all necessary administrative forms early and accurately, so attention might be focused on the interview.
  • Check in with the narrator the day before the interview, and confirm the details, including scheduling and question list.
  • Dressing professionally, being on time, being polite and gracious -- these demonstrate respect for your interviewee; don't make dress, punctuality, or personality count against you!