Creating an Oral History Program

I recently attended an oral history workshop sponsored by the California Conference of Historical Societies. The workshop focused on the process of creating an oral history program. The presentations from archivists at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley and the Sacramento Public Library were excellent and highly informative.

Creating an oral history program often involves acquiring a number of audio/visual tools in addition to outlining the process.

First, what is oral history?

Oral history is the collection and study of historical information about individuals, families, notable events, or everyday life using audiotapes, videotapes, or transcriptions.

I’ve been creating oral histories for some time, from interviewing members of the Missouri and Yosemite climbing communities to documenting the personal stories of monks. My work on biographies, family histories, and regional histories has also reminded me of the importance of oral histories.

Before I get into the hows of creating an oral history program, I want to highlight why oral history is essential to our communities.

A client recently remarked that they were unsure if anyone would find their story of interest because they had no particular claim to fame. I disagreed; their story is and will be important. This person’s account and experience of the world provides a glimpse into a cross-section of time and place. Readers today, particularly those living in the same location and engaging in similar activities, will learn from this individual’s life and insights. Readers and researchers in the future will be able to compare this person’s story with the stories of others who lived at the same time and experienced the same economic, political, and societal paradigms, though from perhaps different personal circumstances.

Oral histories are a reasonably easy way (far easier than, say, creating an entire biography) to document a perspective that might otherwise get lost to time. As such, a lot is possible. We can interview winners and losers. We can question the significant players in an event, as well as the folks who played a minor role. All of these perspectives create a multi-faceted story that can help those in the future have a more comprehensive understanding of history.

Whether you are interviewing a head of state, a coal miner, or a spiritual director, all oral history efforts will share certain elements. What are the parts of an oral history program? 


First, the interviewer needs to research the interviewee and the topics they will discuss. Did the person write a book? If so, read the book. Were they in a war? Then read about the war. Familiarize yourself with the person and the things they have experienced. This preparation helps interviewers to ask the right questions and lead the conversation in a productive direction.

The copyright ownership of the interview also must be sorted. Will the interviewee have a chance to review the transcriptions of what was said? Can they keep the recording from being released? Does the recording belong to an institution? Who owns the copyright of the oral history? After you make these decisions, a contract must be drafted and provided to the subjects of the interview.

pre-interview questionnaire can be sent to the interviewee. The answers to these questions will help to guide the interviewer in developing questions and running the interview.

An alternative to the pre-interview questionnaire is a preliminary interview. This interview can be recorded or not. Similar to a questionnaire, it will help both the interviewer and the subject to create a high-quality final interview.

Finally, an oral history project needs a good interviewer. A good interviewer knows when to allow digressions and when to bring the conversation back on track. The interviewer can also be someone from the same community as the subject or have experienced similar things in life.

The interview

Once you get to the final interview, you should have put in enough preparation that the interview itself is fluid. You know what questions to ask, you have researched the subject and what they will talk about, and the paperwork is out of the way. Only two things remain: the setting and the equipment.

The setting for the interview is essential. More than once, I made the mistake of interviewing a subject in a loud, distracting environment. Poor surroundings affect the audio/video and prevent the interviewer and subject from focusing on the story. Find a quiet and comfortable place, and if you are using video, make sure that the lighting is right.

Know your equipment. You do not need the best camera or recorder. You need to know how to use what you have and its limitations. Make sure that you have plenty of batteries and storage space. And know what file formats you are creating.

After the interview

There is plenty of work that must be completed after the interview.

Someone must transcribe the audio; this can be done in-house or outsourced to a contractor. If the interview was filmed, then it needs to be edited and formatted for distribution.

Once the post-production is complete, the content will need to be archived for future preservation and distributed to interested audiences.

For secure archiving, the use of both cloud backups and physical backup drives is the best solution. When backing-up anything, redundancy is critical.

Distributing the oral history will depend on the copyright, funding, and goals of the project. A simple, cheap solution is uploading the audio or video to a site like YouTube. Another option is to host the material on the organization’s website. The transcribed audio can also be published as a book (or assembled with other oral histories into one book), which will require book design and printing (I could write an entire post on this topic). If the oral history is intended for private distribution within a family or organization, then the book option is probably the best way to share the content.

Concluding Thoughts

The process of creating oral histories and creating an oral history program is often exciting and rewarding; it does entail a lot of work, but the results are worth the effort. While creating this post, I have also been developing the outline of my next oral history project, I am thrilled with the prospect and know that this work will provide a service to the interested community.

Enjoy the process of building your next oral history project, and check out our services if you need help with an oral history program or publishing program.