Oral History


Oral History is nothing new, many of the historical sources we rely on today came from oral testimony that was later written down, testimony that was passed on from generation to generation purely by word of mouth. By recording somebody’s life story you are not only making a record of their experience but preserving their voice, their accent, the way they talk about their experience. This is why oral history is so different to written history, the spoken story is alive, and provides more insight into the interviewee and the story they have to tell.

How to Begin

It is important to be focussed on excactly what subject you are researching and what you to find out.  Don’t be too ambitious – it is better to have ten really good interviews than thirty mediocre ones.

Tell people know about your project – produce some fliers or put an advertisement in a local paper. It is wonderful when somebody recommends an interviewee as a fantastic talker, a personality, or somebody who has exactly the type of experience you are looking for.

  • Give your interviewee as much information about yourself and your project and a draft list of questions if requested
  • Arrange a date and a time for the interview – try to interview people in their own home as they will be more relaxed

Before the Interview

All interviewers get better with practice. It is important to be able to engage with your interviewee straight away, to make feel relaxed in your company, and most important to instill trust. If they trust you as an interviewer they will feel comfortable about speaking to you about their experiences.

Interviewing can be very tiring, both for the interviewer and the interviewee. You have to concentrate throughout the interview, to listen to what is being said as well as thinking on your feet; a reply may prompt a new question that you had not even thought of at the beginning of the interview. Take a notebook and scribble down any thoughts and comments that you can come back to at the end of the interview.


The basic equipment you need for an audio interview is a digital tape recorder – At Firstborn we use Zoom digital recorders with build in microphones. Always use headphones to check your recording levels and to listen and check that there is no background noise. Some people wear headphones all the way through the interview; we suggest you keep the headphones on at the beginning and check recording at various intervals.

The Zoom H2

  • The recording needs to peak at approx -12 – recording level 123
  • Suggested Volume -82
  • Mic setting – side of recorder on M
  • Mic setting front of recorder – red light on front.
  • Press record button and you will see the levels moving up and down.
  • If the red light is flashing the recorder is on pause
  • Press record again to stop recording
  • Press forward/pause for playback – the light is green
  • To connect to PC with USB
  • Scroll through menu until you get to USB Select – storage

The Zoom H4N

  • Select mic input – internal mic (mic light)
  • Press record once to set levels – button flashing
  • Press again to start recording
  • Set recording levels 82-85
  • Volume 81

If you are unfamiliar with the equipment,  practice before the interview on your family and friends. You want to be totally confident before you go to your first interview otherwise you will be worrying about whether your tape recorder is working and not listening to your interviewee. Always check your equipment before the interview – tape recorder, microphone, batteries, headphones.

The Interview

Remember that you are in charge! Before starting the interview stand in the
room and listen – excessive background noise can ruin an interview. Chiming clocks, buzzing lights, fridges, electric fires, barking dogs. You also need to be aware of noise outside the house – traffic, road or building works. It is acceptable to ask people to turn off noisy electrical appliances and if you are concerned about noise outside make sure your interviewee is sitting with their back to the noise as this will help.

Check your sound levels

The Zoom H2 has a built in microphone, there are various accessories, a stand and a handle.We suggest you use the handle and hold the recorder like a microphone.

If you’re using tie clip microphones make sure they’re attached to clothing near to the neck, collars of the neck of a jumper/jacket. Make sure there is no jewelry or clothing brushing against the mic.

If you are using a hand held mic – hold it approx nine to twelve inches away from your contributor’s mouth. Ask your interviewee to read a page from a book or paper – this gives you time to get a good and consistent level on their voice.

Before you start

Explain that you will not be doing much talking yourself – there is nothing more irritating for the listener than hearing the interviewer agreeing and talking. This is an interview not a conversation. Retain eye contact and nod encouragingly. Always let the interviewee know that they can ask you to turn off your tape recorder at any time.

Begin your interview

Introduce yourself, i.e. this is xxx interviewing Mrs X on 1st march 2011. Then ask your interviewee basic biographical questions; where their parents were born, their name, place and date and place of birth.

All interviewees are different, some will need encouragement and others will talk without seeming to draw breath. Try to keep your interview on track, nudge people gently back to the point, if they are describing an important event try to get them to qualify it with a date.

If you do have a reluctant or nervous interviewee it often helps if you ask them to describe a particular place, perhaps the house they once lived in. Ask your interviewee to give you a guided tour starting at the front door. People very often give you a fantastic amount of detail and talking like this prompts further memories.

If your interviewee is older, be aware that they may get tired, or a need a break or a glass of water. It’s often worth splitting the interview into several sessions if people have a lot to tell you.

When your interview is finished say so.  It is difficult for a listener or indeed an archivist when they receive a recording which just tales off , they do not know if this is the end of the interview. Simply say ‘this is the end of the interview between x….and x.’

After the interview

Don’t rush away. Take time to look at old photographs or documents, and to reassure your interviewee about the interview.
When you get home, download your interview onto your computer and make a CD copy and don’t forget to label it. Write a short synopsis of the interview and if possible a chronological break down of the content.

Good Luck

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