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Setting up a project

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  • A Guide to Setting up an Oral History Project

    Advice on oral history projects

    UNSW-related Oral History Projects

    The Oral History Program, for a negotiated fee, is available to coordinate UNSW-related oral history projects, to conduct interviews and prepare edited and indexed transcripts.

    Other Oral History Projects

    For projects unrelated to the UNSW the Program may be able to recommend experienced oral historians, editors and indexers.

    General Advice

    Staff of the Oral History Program are usually available to answer general queries about oral history. People requiring advice might also consult the Program's following guide to setting up an oral history project.

    A Guide to Setting up an Oral History Project

  • Introduction
  • Establishing a Project
  • The Interview
  • Legal Agreements and Obligations
  • Towards the Final Product
  • Project Costs

    This guide was prepared by staff of the Oral History Program in the UNSW Archives in 2000.


    So, you've conducted interviews with twenty people. You have over fifty hours, perhaps even 150 hours, of tape. You now sit back and congratulate yourself on a job well done.

    Or is it?

    Have you decided what becomes of the tapes? How their contents might be used? Will an index or a transcript be available? If you intended to produce them for future reference, where are you going to store them? If you store them in the garage do you realise they might not last for more than a few years? Have you the correct legal documentation for storing and using the tapes?

    What about the interviews themselves? Did you spend any time researching sources of evidence other than oral histories? Are they going to be useful to anyone but yourself? Are they going to raise more questions than they answer? What has been the emotional reaction of those you interviewed, especially if interview topics touched on deeply personal issues?

    Oral history can be extremely useful and interesting, not only in learning about personal responses to particular events, but also in helping to create community awareness about the past. Yet, its value is ultimately determined by the type of preparations made for the interviews and how they might be used. This guide is intended as a checklist of considerations for establishing an oral history project.

    Establishing a Project

    1. Plan

      Be clear about the purpose of the project. What is the scope? How might the project be designed to reflect the aim and the 'community' you want to interview? How many tape recorded hours?

      Who to interview? Maintain a list of likely candidates for interviewing, perhaps on index cards, and start collecting information about them, perhaps stored in folders.

    2. Equipment

      2.1 Tape recorders

      Cassette, reel-to-reel or DAT (digital audio tape)?

      The choice might depend on a range of factors. If sound quality and portability is important consider a DAT, although they are expensive.

      If the interviews are to be stored on tape as an archival collection they should be dubbed onto reels. (Reel-to-reel machines are also expensive, but it may be possible to borrow one for this purpose.)

      Cassette recorders (without recording levels) are the cheapest alternative and more than adequate if the transcribed interview is the version used. However, they are not suitable for good quality sound.

      2.2 Microphones

      An external microphone is essential; clip-on types are less obtrusive, but hand-held ones are more easily directed to pick up the speaker's voice.

      2.3 Tapes

      Use only good quality cassettes (ie those that can be taken apart and put back together). For reels (archival storage), BASF Studio Master 468 are recommended. Sixty and ninety minute cassette tapes are recommended because they are stronger, thus, less prone to damage than 120 minute.

      2.4 Word Processor/Transcribing Machine

      If tapes are to be transcribed, a word processor and if financially possible a transcribing machine that will save hours, even weeks, of work.

    The Interview

    1. Planning for the Interview

      3.1 Research

      To ensure a satisfying interview, it is essential to prepare background material. The more information you have gathered about your interviewees, their historical context or particular topics you are interested in, the more they will tell you. Treat the project as you would if you were undertaking historical research for a book or an article: read relevant documentary material (both primary and secondary sources), make notes or compose preliminary questions as you go along. But, above all, allow yourself enough time to research and think about the interview - its structure, possible questions - before conducting one.

      3.2 Preliminary interview

      This provides an opportunity to meet the interviewee and establish a rapport. Use the time to discuss the interview topics in general and advise interviewees of the legal agreement and possible future uses of the interview. It can be worthwhile asking the interviewee if you might look at any old photographs, relevant articles, newspaper clippings or other documentary material which might prove helpful for research. Provide the interviewee with a receipt for any items which you borrow or which have been donated.

      3.3 Interview topics and questions

      After the preliminary interview, prepare a list of interview topics and send a copy to the interviewee so that they can see what areas you wish to cover. Having seen the list of topics, the interviewee may be more likely to follow this general direction of inquiry without too much prompting from the interviewer.

      It's a good idea to create a set of questions for the interview. These can be listed in thematic or chronological order on a sheet of paper or written separately on note cards. Use them flexibly, but be aware that rustles of paper make noisy recordings.

      Allow a half-day for the interview, but keep the interview within a 2.5 hours maximum so that it does not become too tiring. About 1.5 - 2 hours of tape should be generated in this time. It is usually a good idea not to depart as soon as the interview is completed. Instead, stay for a cup of tea (if invited), or take the person to lunch if that is appropriate. Interviewing means focussing attention on a person by encouraging them to see their experiences as important. Abrupt departures can be disorienting for the person being interviewed.

    2. Checklist of Procedures

    • Equipment check before the interview: check microphones, recorder, batteries and spares for microphones, extension cord, a good supply of tapes, recording machine.

    • Test: record levels, microphones, batteries, tape. Clean machine heads after every 8 hours with commercial cleaning kits/tape.

    • At the beginning of the tape, verbally record the names of the interviewee and interviewer, the date and place of the interview. This can double as a test to make sure the equipment is recording correctly.
    • Write the tape number, names of the interviewer and interviewee, place and date on the tapes.

    • Immediately before beginning the interview, adjust and check record levels. This is particularly important to ensure good quality sound reproduction.

    • Consider where you record the interview. Most people will not have access to a recording studio, so carefully check if other sounds are likely to be picked up by the microphone. For example, dogs barking, traffic noise (especially car alarms), banging and any other constant background noise will adversely affect the sound reproduction. Even low background hums, such as air conditioning units, can ruin a recording. Also, recordings in rooms barely furnished and with high ceilings can produce a hollow sound.

    • To determine whether background noise will affect the recording, use earphones to listen to a test recording.
    • When the interview begins, watch the record levels to make sure that the volume is adequate; check to see that the reels are rotating.

    1. Interview Techniques

    • Start with easy questions which will put the interviewee at ease. Ask the interviewee about their birth date, place of birth and where they grew up, family, occupation of parents. Answers to such questions provide background to the interviewee's experiences, and are an easy starting point.

    • Follow approximately the prepared questions, but be alert for new areas of discussion or interesting new 'leads.'

    • An interview is not a dialogue. The whole point of an interview is to get the narrator to tell their story. So keep questions and comments short and to the point.

    • Ask one question at a time.

    • Start with non-controversial questions; save the delicate questions, if you have them, until you have become better acquainted and the interviewee has had a chance to relax into the interview.

    • Don't worry if your questions are not beautifully phrased. A few fumbled questions may even put the interviewee at ease.

    • Try not to interrupt interviewees unless they have, for example, lost their train of thought, are talking about something totally irrelevant or are repeating themselves.

    • Ask questions that require more of an answer than 'yes' or 'no'. Start with 'why, 'how', 'where', 'describe'.

    • Try not to talk at the same time as the interviewee, because both voices may become indecipherable to a transcriber or researcher.

    • Don't be flustered by periods of silence or a gap between your question and the interviewee's answer. Some people take a longer time to think of their answers, and a thoughtful response will often be forthcoming.

    1. After the Interview

    • Make sure that tapes have been labelled clearly–with name of the interviewee, interviewer, date and place of interview, number of tapes and interview sequence, eg 3/5 (to identify the third of five tapes). Standardise labelling. Write ‘original' on the original recordings. If the original recording is a cassette, remove the push-out safety tabs on the back to prevent accidental reuse of the original.
    • Make two copies of the original tape: one to be used as a working copy, the other to be sent to the Interviewee.
    • Send a thank you letter to the Interviewee and make sure they have signed a copyright/agreement form. If appropriate, take this opportunity to inquire about historically relevant material (photographs, newspaper clippings) which the interviewee might like to loan or give the Project. At this time or as soon as possible, a set of cassette copies of the original tapes should be sent to the interviewee.
    • If possible, store tapes centrally (in an archives, for example, or perhaps a willing local history library) so that they can be made available to researchers. How the tapes are stored will affect how long they last.
    • After the interview has been transcribed and edited, send a copy of the transcript to the Interviewee for corrections (of factual material, names, places and so on) and necessary amendments.

    Legal Agreements and Obligations

    Before the interviewing process begins, it is essential to assure interviewees that their rights in the interview and recordings will be respected and that any restrictions they may wish to make with regard to access and usage will be followed. In the case of the Oral History Program in the UNSW Archives, the interviewer also explains that the original tape recordings will be deposited in the University Archives, that cassette copies will be made and that the tape recording will be transcribed and the transcript edited in due course.

    Interviewees should be willing that access to at least part of the interview, either in the form of the tape recording or a transcript, be made available to bona fide researchers. Access is, of course, subject to the conditions or restrictions which they place on the tapes and transcript of the interview.

    Legal agreements must be signed in order for the interviewee to:

  • assign copyright
  • release his/her rights in the tapes and the transcript so that they may be legally deposited
  • protect the interviewee's interests by placing restrictions – if thought necessary – on
  • access and usage of the tapes and transcript.

  • Towards the Final Product

    1. To Transcribe or Not to Transcribe?

      The advantages of transcription are twofold: the interview is available for browsing and direct quotation; secondly, paper-based documents can last significantly longer than those stored on magnetic or digital tape. The main disadvantage is that it is very expensive to prepare useful and accurate transcripts.

    • If the tape is not transcribed, make a contents list with times and an outline of what the tape contains.

    • If the tape is transcribed, the length of time it takes to transcribe one hour of tape on a word processor ranges from 4-8 hours depending on the difficulty of the recording and the skill of the transcriber.
    • Use of a transcription machine with a foot pedal and backtracking facility is highly recommended. Such machines are expensive but very helpful.
    • The transcription should be checked to make sure it is true to the recording and edited lightly (eliminating repetitions, false starts, etc.). Rambling sentences might be edited by replacing unclear sections with ellipses, thus, clarifying the meaning, yet indicating to the reader that the interview has been edited.

    • The transcript (with 1.5 spacing for ease of reading/correcting) should then be sent to the interviewee for corrections of names, dates, missing or mis-heard words. Words added by either the editor or interviewee to clarify meaning should be put in square brackets [eg to complete names, dates and so on].
    • Corrections added, the transcript can now be ‘polished' with a final edit. This might entail a final check and placing of headings at appropriate places.
    • A title page, table of contents, short biography and an index may all be added to make the document more convenient to use. (‘Chapter' headings which point out major themes/personalities–and an accompanying table of contents–help to identify the major points of the interview.)
    • Send a copy of the final version of the transcript to the interviewee; the original should be deposited in a safe place.

    1. Editing

      'How much to edit?' depends on the project. For most projects, the transcript should reflect the style, colloquialisms, even memory lapses of the interviewee. But, it is often difficult to translate someone's oral performance into a verbatim written form.

      To achieve a consistent style, a style guide is essential, especially if more than one person is working on the project.

    2. Basic Documentation

      Project documentation is important particularly so that information may be retrieved relatively easily. Several files might be kept to provide documentation for the project:

      9.1 Name index file (perhaps on large index cards, or on a computer database) with the following information:

    • full name of interviewee [access is by means of last name of interviewee]
    • full name of interviewer
    • date and place of interview
    • identification number, [identification numbers can be assigned on a chronological basis according to date of the first interview session]
    • interviewee's relevant personal details
    • number and type of tapes and copies
    • restrictions on access and use; whether copyright assigned
    • whether transcript is available
    • details on progress of interview, transcript, editing

      9.2 Transcript file

      If transcripts are part of the project, store in filing cabinet, perhaps arranged in alphabetical order or according to catalogue numbers. It is a good idea to keep a copy of the original (corrected) transcript and the final edited version. The interviewee, however, may have only agreed to release the final edited version, so organise the files to make sure researchers do not accidentally read the version excluded for public access by the legal agreement.

      9.3 Interview file

      A file for each person interviewed, should also be kept, containing:

    • research information
    • signed Legal Agreements
    • list of topics for interview
    • correspondence
    • list of photographs or other memorabilia available
    • outline of contents of tapes (if transcripts are not made)

    1. Storage

      The way tapes are stored will affect how long they last. Tapes deteriorate usually for two main reasons:

    • either the tape itself is physically damaged, perhaps ragged around the edges, torn or crushed.
    • or the medium which contains the sound has been affected in some way, usually because of large fluctuations in temperature or humidity levels.

  • To avoid this type of damage ensure:

    • that tapes have been rewound after use so that they present smooth edges. Store them upright in their containers with nothing placed on top of them. If they are stored horizontally or have things placed on top of them eventually the tape edge nearest the shelving may be physically damaged.
    • store in a place where temperature and humidity levels are relatively stable. Do not store them in garages and attics.

      One more point. You may decide to transcribe tapes to ensure that if tapes are destroyed you still have a paper-based record of interview. Remember, however, that most paper itself is unstable and is likely to deteriorate over a relatively short period. One way to preserve transcripts is to copy them on to acid-free paper and store them in folders–perhaps made out of mylar or acid free cardboard. Again, remember that paper is fragile and care should be taken in how it is stored.

    Project Costs

    Costs will include some of the following items:

  • Purchase or hire of:

    • Reel-to-reel or cassette tapes (originals plus copies)
    • Tape recorders (reel-to-reel, cassette or digital)
    • Microphones/batteries
    • Word processor, disks, printer
    • Transcribing equipment
    • Paper and stationery
    • Storage equipment eg filing cabinets for transcripts and research files, shelves for tapes, acid-free materials if serious about preserving transcripts.

  • Payment (or volunteer labour) for:

    • Research
    • interviewing
    • transcribing
    • editing
    • indexing
    • photocopying

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