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Digital Initiatives: Oral Histories

Digital Initiatives department at the North Dakota State Library

Oral Histories

Oral History Projects

People of all ages, young and old, can create oral histories. Capturing the stories and memories of individuals, community members, relatives, etc. is a great way to preserve history through the eyes of everyday people. Oral histories can give voices to those who have been forgotten, overlooked, or excluded from the historical record; provide unique and vital perspectives on the past, which can help inform future generations; and they can also be effective methods of recording information that is difficult to obtain by other ways.

Here are the steps involved in an oral history project (each of these steps are outlined in more detail in the sections below):

  1. Create a Plan
  2. Obtain Equipment
  3. Create a List of Questions
  4. Find Interviewees
  5. Conduct the Interviews
  6. Process and Store the Recordings
  7. Make the Recordings Accessible

Create a Plan

Having a plan is an essential part of any oral history project. In order to get the most out of an oral history project, it must be well-thought-out and well-documented in order for it to run smoothly and succeed. Consult the resources below for more information on developing a plan for your oral history project.

Obtain Equipment

There are numerous recording equipment options, and this can make the process of selecting the right one feel daunting. However, it does not have to be complicated. Equipment can be as simple as a smartphone or be more sophisticated recording hardware. Equipment will likely depend on things like the scope and size of the project and what you can afford.

Ideally, you want equipment that can record at the highest standards: uncompressed WAV format, 24-bit, and 96 kHz. These are the preferred settings, but the recordings can also be done at the minimum standards of MP3 format, 16-bit, and 48 kHz. Consult the ND State Library's Digitization Standards for more information.

You also need to consider software to process and manage the recordings. A go-to free option is Audacity. If you have the funds, Sound Forge and Adobe Audition are also good options.

Consult the resources below for more information on obtaining the appropriate hardware and software for an oral history project.

Create a List of Questions

Creating a list of questions prior to the interview is an important step so the interview remains organized. The questions you ask really depend on what you are focusing on, but below are some sample questions to get you thinking.

  • Questions that provide introductory information:
    • Interviewee's first and last name
    • Interviewer's first and last name
    • Date and place of interview
  • Where and when were you born? 
  • What are the names of your parents, your partner/spouse, children?
  • Where did you go to school, live, work, serve in the military?
  • Tell us about some of your most happy memories as a kid, adult, parent.
  • Other topics could include: firsts (job, car, etc.), politics, religion, technology, economics, race relations, health, trends, advice to future generations, life timelines, major events, COVID-19, etc.

Find Interviewees

Who you interview for your project depends on its scope. However, these are often good places to start:

  • Family members
  • Elderly residents of your community
  • Veterans
  • Find long-time residents who can share stories about your community’s past

Conduct the Interviews

Once you begin asking the questions, the interview may go in all directions (and this is good). Let the interviewee feel comfortable as you guide them with the questions. Most of all, enjoy your time together—some interviews last 45 minutes and some last hours.

Consult the resources below for more information on the best practices of conducting interviews.

Process and Store the Recordings

After the interviews, careful consideration should be given to the processing and storage of the recordings. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Quality control
    • Listen to the recordings to make sure everything works and sounds normal.
    • Check the settings/ properties of the audio files and make sure they meet the recommended standards.
      • The settings/ standards should have already been set ahead of time, but it is still a good idea to review them afterward.
    • If you need to edit a recording with a software, like Audacity, make a copy of the master file and then edit the copy. It is best practice to NOT edit a master file.
  • Preservation
    • Follow the preservation plan you came up with in the first step of your oral history project.
    • For more information, consult the "Audio/ Visual Preservation" tab at the top of this page or the Preservation page.
  • Transcribe the interviews
    • If possible, transcribe the interviews so they can be readable and searchable.
    • It would also be handy for users if the transcriptions were made available online, alongside the recordings.

Make the Recordings Accessible

Now that your oral history project is almost complete, the last step is access. You want to somehow make the recordings accessible. The best way to do this is to upload the collection to an online repository. Here are a few examples:

Oral History Resources

Audio/ Visual Resources

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Many of these resources and programs are funded under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.