Beginning an oral history project can seem like a daunting task. From selecting a topic to choosing equipment and formulating questions, much thought and planning goes into each interview undertaking. In this article, we will address project development, which can be broken down into five incremental steps. These stages will take you from the inception of a research idea to approaching potential participants.

1. Inquiry

While formulating a project plan, it is important to consider what type of interviewing you would like to undertake. Are there stories from your family or community you think are important to record? Is there a component of history you feel has not been fully documented or can be further explored? Your initial step is to write down any information you already know about the subject, and decide both where your interests lie and what gaps you still think still need to be filled in regarding your knowledge of the topic.

Example: If you are interested in learning more about the impact of Executive Order 9066 during the Second World War, you might decide to formulate a project around personal experiences of Japanese Americans relocated to internment camps.

2. Research

An oral history project then progresses to the first stage of research. It is important to identify relevant sources that will inform your methods of interviewing, as they will help shape your questions and demonstrate respect for the narrator’s experiences. Research often begins with an online investigation into primary and secondary sources that will provide further background on your subject.

Example: You might first search for time period accounts from those who were interned during World War II and yield the Japanese American Relocation Digital Archives. Perhaps a photograph of a family at the Manzanar War Relocation Center would catch your eye, and a search more in depth would unearth reference to the Manzanar Riot, during which violence broke out in the camp in December 1942.

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Further research might turn up an oral history interview with Richard Yamashiro in the Densho Digital Archive, peaking your interest in the topic while you listen to a round of firsthand experiences recounted.

After studying time period documents, like newspapers and correspondences, a secondary source assessment can be helpful in order to determine what scholarship is already available on the subject. For instance, you may come across an article providing historiography on the event and a new form of interpretation, which will allow you to put into perspective the scholarship already available on the subject.  If you are working on smaller scale community projects, online research may not need to be as extensive. Investigating the archives in your local library or consulting with a historical society can also bring to light a deeper trove of information. And in family interviews, it can be more fitting to search your family attic for photography albums and personal artifacts that may inspire further memories.

3. Project Design

A project design can be as formal or informal as your intentions require. Essentially, it serves as a summary of your initial research and an outline of your goals. It is especially important to be pragmatic while planning, emphasizing a realistic assessment of your time and resources.

Example: If you are seeking to engage with historical questions about the Manzanar Riot, the outline can be a thorough assessment of the sources you have gathered. It can also detail how you believe the research influences your understanding of the topic, and consider what subjects remain unexplored by previous scholarship.

If you are working on a term paper for a class on Japanese American internment, you may know that you only have a specified amount of time to locate a narrator, interview them, and use the material to inform your research. Writing a book, on the other hand, would generate a longer timeframe in which to work.

If you are speaking with elderly members of a community, you may also have to take into account unforeseeable circumstances and the importance of conducting the interviews in a timely manner. In oral history, the human component is always important to consider, as health and availability nearly always come into play.

With this in mind, the final intended deliverables and form of the project are important to keep in mind: Will you return a copy of the recording to the narrators? Will transcripts of the oral histories be made? Will the interviews appear in a public exhibition? We will discuss further in the forth article in this series some of the potential applications for your interviews.

The final component of a project design is to draft a set of legal releases to stipulate uses for the interviews. John A. Neuschwander’s A Guide to Oral History and the Law is an especially important resource to consult if you are organizing an oral history project that will be archived or if plan to publish work on the material you have gathered. Copyright and related matters are essential to consider in these cases.

With family interviews, the legal considerations can perhaps be less formal if you intend to keep them within the scope of your immediate relatives. But it is still important to consider legal steps in order to make your family member more comfortable within the interview and avoid any issues on publishing or archiving the material at a later date.

Largely, oral history follows a different process than journalism in terms of consent. While journalists may utilize any quotations issued “on the record,” oral historians pursue another means of protection. Before any interview, narrators (interviewees) are notified about the topics likely to come up within the oral history. They are then informed that they may halt an interview at any point and ask that it be deleted if they so choose.

If a transcript (a written record) of the interview is produced, it is recommended that the narrator be sent a copy and be permitted to make amendments or close sections of the interview. These protections provide a level of reassurance and respect to the narrator, and allow them to maintain authority over their own story and experiences.

Three forms that may be drafted for an interview project:

  • Informed Consent: This is a process by which the narrator recognizes that your conversation is being recorded for your project, that they will be asked about the topics you have outlined, and that the interview can be stopped at any point. This form may be especially important in universities in which oral history projects fall under the assessment of an Institutional Review Board. In less formal cases, verbal consent can be given at the beginning of the recording.
  • Legal Release: This form is usually signed after an interview or after a transcript has been reviewed by the narrator and returned with corrections. It often lists any restrictions placed upon the material by the narrator, and speaks to provisions concerning copyright. Interviewers may also be asked to sign a release of this nature. Interviews are sometimes closed for a specified number of years or until after the narrator’s death.
  • Deed of Gift: This form usually provides formal donation of an interview to an archive, and can occasionally be combined with the legal release form. One example of a combined form can be found through the University of Kentucky Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History. It important to include the contact information of your narrator and interviewer within these legal forms, and to have these details recorded alongside your additional project documents.

Finally, in the project outline, it is important also to be self-reflective by considering your own relationship to the topic and outlook on the material. These thoughts can influence the way you ask questions or interact with the narrators.

4. Narrator Determination

Now that you have laid out the early stages of your project, the next step is to draft a list of people who may be interested in being interviewed. Certainly, those who experienced a historic event directly can provide the greatest firsthand perspective. But in the case where those individuals are not readily available, their relatives and friends may be fitting to contact.

Example: In the example of an oral history projects with legacy, like one with people who experienced the Manzanar Riot, it could be beneficial to check in with the project coordinators of similar initiatives to see if they may recommend anyone who could speak about your topic of interest.

For community initiatives, a process of referral can be particularly important. Once you have made contact with one person who is interested in becoming involved, you can ask them to recommend others who may similarly like to be interviewed. Usually, the eldest members of the family recall the greatest extent of history, going back generations, so it could be most important to speak with them first. You could also create an interest survey or advertise your project in a community publication to garner more publicity and collective input. Depending on the emphasis of your project, it may be fitting to speak to people who can tell the most concrete and detailed stories. It is important to keep in mind that the health and availability of the potential narrators.

5. Narrator Approach

Once you have determined a list of people who may be interested in being interviewed, it is standard practice to draft a letter of invitation that explains the scope of your project, intended uses of the interviews, and reason for reaching out to them. If you are being referred to the individual from another participant or friend, it can be helpful to mention that person’s name as well. It is possible to send hard copies of the letter to their mailing address. Alternately, if you have been provided an email address, a short message introducing yourself in the body of the email along with the more formal letter as an attachment can be helpful. If you have solely been provided a phone number, calling in a professional manner and explaining in brief your project can be an important first contact. After obtaining additional interest and contact information, you can then follow up with the formal letter.

After they have expressed interest, it can be helpful to create an interview guide to distribute along with the legal releases. This guide can discuss your research interests more in depth and how oral history may be different from the style of interviewing they are used to in journalism. Further details in regards to interview methodology will be discussed in the third article in this series.

It is important to also consider how you would feel if someone reached out to you and asked to sit down and talk about your life in order to understand any reservations they may have in becoming involved. Especially if it is a topic is a rather difficult one for them to recall. If they agree to participate, it is important to keep in touch and first schedule a pre-interview session to meet up at their earliest convenience, preferably within two weeks to one month from first contact. More details in this regard will be discussed in the next article as well.

Now that you have taken your project through its beginnings, the next step will be further reflect and plot your subsequent course of action: the interview.

Erica A. Fugger is a New York-based oral historian whose focus lies in examining the personal narratives underpinning revolutions and social movements. She currently serves as the office manager of the Columbia Center for Oral History Archives where she supports scholarly research, offers project consultations, and develops initiatives to expand access to the collections. Highlights of her previous work include conducting oral histories for the Brooklyn Navy Yard Center and teaching peer interviewing to the New York Public Library Retirees Association. This series of articles were written in conjunction with the development of an oral history workshop with the input and expertise of interviewer Cameron Vanderscoff. His support and collaboration are greatly appreciated, and cannot be stated often enough. If any questions arise in your own oral history projects, please do not hesitate to reach out to Erica via her professional website:

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