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Method for carrying out the oral history interview


Preparation  -  Interview  -  Processing



Preparatory meeting with interviewee to agree on questions and discuss legal agreement.

Leave copy of draft legal agreement, and list of questions with interviewee.

Note that bad language should be kept out of the interview.

Agree on meeting for the interview.


The Interview




Clock easily visable.

Explain how to signal a pause.

Explain how to signal the approaching end to a question.



Download file to computer, edit if necessary, and thence onto DVD

Add legal agreement to end of interview.


Types of Oral History Interviews

There are two main types of oral history interview:

  • Life history interviews – for example, an interview that focuses on the life and the changes experienced by a long-term resident in your area  
  • topic interviews – those recording information about a specific subject, such as an interview with someone about the history of a workplace or occupation.

For example, war oral history is a topic interview, but it should include some questions about the interviewee's pre-war life to provide a context for their later experiences.



The recording and use of oral history may give rise to ethical considerations. The National Oral History Association of New Zealand (NOHANZ) has published a Code of Ethical and Technical Practice that sets out the responsibilities of interviewers and collectors of oral history.

The section on interviewers' responsibilities is particularly important and is reproduced here.

Interviewers have the following responsibilities:
  • to inform the person interviewed of the purposes and procedures of oral history in general and of the particular project in which they are involved
  • to inform the person interviewed of issues such as copyright, ownership, privacy legislation, and how the material and accompanying material may be used
  • to develop sufficient skills and knowledge in interviewing and equipment operation, e.g., through reading and training, to ensure a result of the highest possible standard
  • to use equipment that will produce recordings of the highest possible standard
  • to encourage informative dialogue based on thorough research
  • to conduct interviews with integrity
  • to conduct interviews with an awareness of cultural or individual sensibilities
  • to treat every interview as a confidential conversation, the contents of which are available only as determined by written or recorded agreement with the person interviewed
  • to place each recording and all accompanying material in an archive to be available for research, subject to any conditions placed on it by the person interviewed
  • to inform the person interviewed of where the material will be held
  • to respect all agreements made with the person interviewed.


Abstracts and transcripts

If you plan to offer your oral history recording(s) to the From Memory programme, or some other archive, you will need to choose a way of summarising the contents. Without a written summary, recordings are of limited use to researchers. The most usual way to provide a summary is with an abstract of the interview. For example: -  



Jock SMITH Interview: 25 December 200

Interviewer: Mary Smith

Abstracter: Jo Smith Side 1 of 7

00.10   Tape identification

            Gives full name. Gives place and date of birth. Explains his middle name, Adolphus. Gives          father’s name explains his father was an ex-serviceman from WW1, wounded at Gallipoli.       Gives brief history of father’s wounding. Recalls father complained about it after the war.

03.50   Describes father’s work postwar on railway and difficulty of building a railway line from             Bloggstown to Billington. Explains father an explosives expert – blew holes for tunnels.

06.05   Explains how his 3 brothers and two sisters were in the services. Father had ‘no problem’ with him joining up. Explains his departure from NZ – mother went to Auckland to see him off.        Explains that father sent a parcel to him every month he was overseas. Describes parcels and     their contents.

08.08   Describes getting the tins and how crew appreciated them too. Gives mother’s name. Describes             her and his relationship with her. Explains her Presbyterian religion was important to her and            still is to him.

11.0     Describes how Catholics and Jews were called out of church parades in New Zealand in the      Army for own             religious observation.

12.30   Describes early life Bloggstown. Explains that they lived in a Public Works camp. Describes      camp and conditions.

14.70   Describes some of his primary schooling – skipping classes because he was ahead of the others.            Mentions Fred Bloggs, great grandson of William Bloggs. Explains his best subjects French and    Latin.

17.40   Recalls where he was when Second World War declared. Describes atmosphere at home.        Describes going to the Billington to enlist. Explains why he chose the army. Did not want to be        with ‘all those toffs’ in the air force.



Agreement forms

The NOHANZ code of ethics recommends that all oral history interviews be placed in a suitable repository. If you intend to offer your tapes to the From Memory programme or any other archive, you will need to work out an agreement form. The purpose of this is to ensure the wishes of your interviewee are respected and there is no misunderstanding.

The agreement form should include:

  • the interviewee's name
  • the interviewer's name
  • the date of the interview
  • a list of possible uses to which the interview may be put, such as allowing researchers to access the material and allowing it to be quoted for publication in print or on the web. The interviewee may agree or disagree to any of these.
  • a statement of who owns the copyright for the interview. (This is important so that the material can be used in the future. Copyright is commonly held by the interviewer or organisation they work for.)


The preliminary meeting

Never go to record an oral history interview without a preliminary meeting with your interviewee.


It is essential that you have told your interviewee enough to enable them to make an informed decision as to whether or not they wish to be interviewed. If they do not wish to be interviewed, thank them for their time and leave. Do not pester or attempt to persuade them if their mind seems made up.


If the person agrees to an interview

Seek basic biographical information from your interviewee. Biographical data helps you, and those who use your interviews, to place interviewees in their social context, and it may provide information for genealogists in years to come. You may find it useful to use a biographical information form for collecting this information. It should include:

  • the interviewee's date and place of birth
  • the names of the interviewee's parents and their dates of birth, marriage and death 
  • the names of the interviewee's siblings, partner(s) and children
  • details of the interviewee's schooling and occupations.

Keep in mind that some people will not want, or will be unable, to give you all of this information. Do not be insistent about collecting it if the interviewee is obviously unwilling to tell you.


Biographical Information Form

Name:                                Iwi:                              Date and place of birth:

Education:                         Employment:

Mother’s name:                 Mother’s DOB:            Mother’s DOD:                 Mother’s occupation:

Father’s name:                  Father’s DOB:              Father’s DOD:                   Father’s occupation:


Partner’s name:

Partner’s DOB:                 Partner’s DOD:             Partner’s occupation:

Date of marriage:              Children:



This is the stage at which to ask for relevant documents and photographs to copy to help with your research and to add to the interview file, if the interviewee agrees. It is also the stage when you should explain what will happen to the finished recording.

Outline the general areas you will be asking about in the interview. Do not give the interviewee specific questions at this stage. They will want to begin answering them and may also try to prepare answers before your next meeting.

Some people fear that they might inadvertently say something sensitive on tape, so it is important to tell them that they can put conditions on the use of their interview if they wish. This is the time to talk about the agreement form.

Keep the preliminary meeting brief, less than an hour. You do not want your interviewee telling all their stories at this meeting. Make an appointment to come back and record them, preferably within a week. A longer delay can make some people anxious about the process.

It is advisable to ring on the day of the interview to make sure that it is still convenient.

Checklist for preliminary meetings

  • Keep it brief.
  • Explain why you are doing the project.
  • Explain what you will be covering in the interview.
  • Explain what will happen to the interview once you have finished with it.
  • Explain that the interviewee has the opportunity to place conditions on access to the interview on the agreement form.

Make an appointment to return with a recorder, preferably within a week.

If the interviewee is a member of your family or someone you know very well, you will still need to explain the project, get their agreement to record an interview, gather biographical information from them and explain the details above.



Oral History Recording Agreement Form

…………………………………………………………..Oral History Project


NAME OF INTERVIEWER…………………………………………………………………………

DATE OF INTERVIEW        ……………………….


COPYRIGHT HOLDER……………………………………………………………………………….

1. PLACEMENT   I, the person interviewed, agree that a recording of my interview and accompanying material will be held at ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. .

2. ACCESS   I understand that the recording of my interview and accompanying material may be made available to researchers at the above location, subject to any restrictions in paragraph 4 below.

3. PUBLICATION I agree that the recording of my interview and accompanying material may be quoted in published works in full or in part and that the recording may be broadcast or used in public performances in full or in part (including electronic publication on the internet), subject to any restrictions in paragraph 4 below.

4.         I require that there will be NO access to                                         (tick appropriate box)

            I require that there be NO publication of

            I require that there be NO electronic publication on the internet of the following sections of my   interview and accompanying material before the review/release date indicated WITHOUT MY


SIDE NUMBERS: _______________________ REVIEW/ RELEASE DATE: ________________________

5. PRIVACY ACT: I understand that this Agreement Form does not affect my rights and responsibilities under the Privacy Act 1993.

6. COMMENTS _________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Person interviewed                        Interviewer                              on behalf of project commissioner

___________________________ ________________________________________________

Date                                                   Date                                            Date

NOTE: The terms of this agreement form may be revised or amended only by the person recorded or by the commissioning organisation or person with the authority of the person interviewed. Any amendment must be registered with the commissioning organisation or person.