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Oral History Project Guide: The Interview

This guide describes how to plan and implement an oral history project.

Background Research

Prepare for the interview by:

  • draft a short biographical introduction of your interview subject;
  • do background research on the time period or event you want to explore; 
  • make a list of open ended questions to ask during the interview;
  • select the location of the interview;
  • prepare any recording devices you plan to use for the interview;
  • ensure you have enough storage space for the recording;
  • if using batteries, take extras in case you need them;
  • have a backup plan if something goes wrong.

Release Forms

Everyone who participates in the interview has an investment in the project: the interviewer, the interviewee, sound or audio managers or assistants, and others who help complete the project.  It is very important to ensure everyone understands their role in the project.  A release form, signed by all parties, clarifies the responsibility and rights of everyone involved.  Such a form may include:

  • the name and contact information of the person signing the form;
  • a description of the project;
  • any uses which will be made of the interview;
  • any restrictions on the use of project material;
  • copyright assignment (to the interviewer, or reserved by the interviewee);
  • and any compensation to be received, if any.

Please see this sample release form used for the Vandy Goes to War project.

The Interview

Schedule the interview:Editors of the Cadet Magazine, 1871

  • set a time and place for the interview ( a quiet room if possible);
  • arrange transportation or parking space for your interview subject and anyone who may accompany them;
  • share a copy of the questions you will ask and ask if there's anything you should add to the list;
  • ask for a list of people names and/or place names that will be discussed and verify correct spellings;
  • schedule audio or videographer assistants, if applicable;
  • ‚Äčif there are any personal copies of photographs, records, or memorabilia that the interviewee would like to share with the project, make arrangements to have them copied or digitized in time for the interview.


Conducting the Interview

During the interview:

  • ask the participant to sign the project release form, and provide them with a copy for their records;
  • begin the interview with a brief introduction of the person and the subject of the interview;
  • if the interview is lengthy consider splitting it into 2 or 3 parts-- each with a specific focus;
  • make sure your questions are open-ended, requiring more than a yes or no answer;  a few samples from other oral history projects:
    • Take us through the day of January 17, 1979;
    • Who were the key people in the Peabody merger and how are they remembered?
    • What was it like at Vanderbilt when the war (World War II) ended?  What kind of mood and atmosphere was there?
  • stop at intervals to ask if the participants (including any assistants) would like to take a break;
  • be sure to thank all participants for contributing to the project as you wind up.