Oral History How-to

Grand Falls-Windsor Oral History Booklet Launch. Photo by Kelly Drover.

So you want to do an oral history project? 
You’ve come to the right spot!
This page will show you how to start from the basics and do a successful oral history project.

At the Intangible Cultural Heritage Office of the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador we want to encourage communities to celebrate, record, disseminate and promote the province's living heritage. Part our mandate is to provide advice and assistance to communities and organizations completing oral history and community heritage work. If you would like more information or want to get in touch please call 739-1892 ex. 2 or email

As part of our work recording living heritage we have developed a partnership with Memorial University's Digital Archives Initiative (DAI). This online archives hosts a variety of collections focused on Newfoundland and Labrador's history and culture. At the Heritage Foundation we encourage communities to consider how they will use the material they collect prior to doing interviews. While oral history interviews are extremely important it is also important to make sure that the material collected is publicly accessible and can be heard, seen, used, and shared by members of the community. We highly recommend communities consider placing their collected material on Memorial University's Digital Archives Initiative.

Project Planning:
Before you begin doing interviews the first thing to do is make a plan. It is always good to decide your goals before you begin. Think about the focus of the project and what you would like the final product to be. The next step is to conduct research on the topic to determine what research exists that you do not need to replicate which should help you sort out who to talk to in the community.

Next you should consider who and what your resources are.
  • Is there a tech savvy community member willing to help? 
  • Do you have a digital recorder or will you need to purchase one? 
  • Who is going to do what for the project? 

Another big consideration is the use and preservation of the material.
  • How are you hoping to use the interviews? 
  • Where will the materials be stored?
  • How will they be processed?

Before you head to your interview make sure you have a checklist of everything you need and most importantly that you know how to properly use everything you have. Another major consideration is your budget and your time.
  • How much money do you have? 
  • Is there funding available? 
  • Who should I talk with about funding?
The cost of your project and the amount of time you have may change how you decide to process the interviews. [See below for more information on processing material.] It is always good to have an idea how much time and money you want to spend before you start interviewing.

If you need help sorting out a plan and making a checklist use our Project Planning Checklist or better yet give the Heritage Foundation a call to help you get started!

Whether you are looking to purchase or to rent there are lots of options for recording equipment and lots of reviews online. Please check out the following links to read a couple of blog posts the Heritage Foundation has done regarding field recording equipment. There are also links to specific models and other product reviews.
Field Recording Equipment
Equipment Suggestions for Doing Oral History

While digital recording on phones, tablets and computers has become more common and the devices better equipped to do field recordings it is still recommended that you use a digital recorder if your budget allows. Do some research and decide what equipment would work best for you and your community. If you have any questions don’t hesitate to contact the Heritage Foundation for advice or more information.

Dale Jarvis interviews Shirley Ryan and Patricia Whalen.
Oral History Interviewing Guide:
Once you have a plan and your equipment ready you can start doing interviews. Now the big question becomes what questions to ask! If you have never done an oral history interview before keep in mind that while it is just a conversation - it is a conversation with a storyteller and a listener. You are there to get your interviewee’s story so try to refrain from saying too much!

You should start every interview by stating the date, who you are, who you are interviewing, and what community you are in. This basic information is extremely useful for anyone who might listen to the interview in the future. It is always good to start with some basic biographical details to provide context for the interview and to put the interviewee at ease. Questions like “where did you grow up” and “who were your parents” allow for a relaxed start to the interview.

There are two main types of oral history interviews, topic interviews and life history interviews. Topic interviews are great for craftspeople, workplace or occupational folklore, or interviews focused on a particular place or event. Topic interviews are in depth and focus on one topic. Life history interviews are focused on one person and are a recording of their story including everything from where they grew up to their work, their family, and to what brought them to where they are today.

The following guides provide suggestions or information on how to get started on your interview:
Oral History in the Digital Age
Step-by-Step Guide to Oral History
Bates College Manual of Oral History
Running a Community Oral History Project Podcast
New Zealand Guide to Recording Oral Histories
Folklife and Fieldwork: An Introduction to Field Techniques
The Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interviewing Guide
How to Do Oral History Podcast Series: Interview Preparation and Research

While these guides offer a list of sample questions to use during the interview:
Tell Me Your Stories
Sample Interview Questions for Veterans
Fifty Questions for Family History Interviews

Here are two videos and a PDF which offer inverview techniques:
How to Record an Oral History Interview
Fieldwork Guide: Getting Interesting Answers
Intangible Cultural Heritage PDF of Interview Techniques

Before you start recording your interview make sure the person you are interviewing is aware they will be recorded and know what the recording will be used for in the future. Have the person sign a consent form that states that they allow you to record the material. Whatever you want to do with the recording make sure the interviewee is aware of how the recording will be used.

Here at the Heritage Foundation we use the Informant Consent Form for DAI Material. This form states the recording will be placed on Memorial University’s Digital Archives Initiative, that it can be used for research and education purposes, and that it is to be used for non-commercial purposes. Depending on how you want to use the material this form may or may not work for you. Staff at the Heritage Foundation would be happy to work together with you to develop a consent form which suits your project. We can also assist in placing these digital recordings online through Memorial University's Digital Archives Initiative so they can be publicly accessible.

If you already have recordings and other material in your community or organization’s collection and would like to have this material placed online through the Digital Archives Initiative please contact the Heritage Foundation. Don’t worry about the format of the recording. We can help to digitize cassette tapes, CDs, reel to reels, photographs, slides or negatives. Let us know what you have in your collection and we will see what we can do for you!

Processing the Material:
Once you have your interviews completed it is time to process the material! This is something you should consider when planning your project and prior to conducting interviews. Processing the material takes more time than the interviews themselves and usually consists of completing a tape log or transcription of the interview as well as writing the metadata (or the information associated with the interview).

At the Heritage Foundation we tend to do tape logs rather than full transcription for our interviews due to how time consuming transcription can be. We try to do as much with our time and resources as possible so we write out tape logs which provide time stamps with the specific topics discussed. Basically, a tape log is an index of topics that the interview covers. It is simpler and less time consuming than doing a full transcription, and makes it easier for later researchers to go directly to that section of tape and listen to the part of the interview they are interested in.

Depending on what you want the material to be used for you may want to consider different options. If you want the interviews compiled and written into a book it is significantly easier with full transcripts of the interviews rather than tape logs. You can do a full transcript yourself or if you have the funding available you can outsource to a transcription company. A full transcription means the entire interview is written out word for word. You should take into consideration how much time and money your community or organization has available prior to completing interviews.

If you want to learn more about tape logs check out our blog post with Sample Tape Logs or click here to go directly to the Tape Log for Folklore and Oral History Interviews. If you are interested in completing full transcriptions see the Baylor University Style Guide for Editing Oral History Transcripts for suggestions on how to write and format the written word.

Final Product:
You have your interviews done - so what do you do now?
Listed below are some examples of how communities can use audio or video interviews or the information collected in the interviews to produce a product that can be shared. This product could be something tangible like a booklet or exhibit on a specific topic, it could be a workshop or festival that celebrates and shares a particular tradition, or it could be something digital like a podcast or video which is easily listened to and shared!

Looking Back: Games We Played
Folk Beliefs & Legends of Bay Roberts
Quidi Vidi Village: A Part of St. John’s, Apart from St. John’s
A Little Montreal: Merchants and Memories of Main Street, Windsor


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