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Oral history guide

Page 3 – Preliminary meeting

The preliminary meeting

Never go to record an oral history interview without a preliminary meeting with your interviewee.

  • Telephone or email your interviewee, and explain why you wish to meet them.
  • Make an appointment to see them, preferably within two or three days.
  • Send them a email or letter that outlines why you will be interviewing them (e.g. to record their memories of their wartime experience). Confirm the time and date of your appointment in this email or letter. People like to have something written down to refer to.
  • Make sure you include your telephone number and email address so they can contact you if something unforeseen arises.
  • Be on time for the preliminary meeting.
  • Be professional and confident.
  • Take the time to explain your project again, including what you intend to do with the recordings.

It is essential that you have told your interviewee enough to enable them to make an informed decision as to whether or not they wish to be interviewed. If they do not wish to be interviewed, thank them for their time and leave. Do not pester or attempt to persuade them if their mind seems made up.

If the person agrees to an interview

Seek basic biographical information from your interviewee. Biographical data helps you, and those who use your interviews, to place interviewees in their social context, and it may provide information for genealogists in years to come. You may find it useful to use a biographical information form (25k, pdf) for collecting this information. It should include:

  • the interviewee's date and place of birth
  • the names of the interviewee's parents and their dates of birth, marriage and death 
  • the names of the interviewee's siblings, partner(s) and children
  • details of the interviewee's schooling and occupations.

Keep in mind that some people will not want, or will be unable, to give you all of this information. Do not be insistent about collecting it if the interviewee is obviously unwilling to tell you.

This is the stage at which to ask for relevant documents and photographs to copy to help with your research and to add to the interview file, if the interviewee agrees. It is also the stage when you should explain what will happen to the finished recording.

Outline the general areas you will be asking about in the interview. Do not give the interviewee specific questions at this stage. They will want to begin answering them and may also try to prepare answers before your next meeting.

Some people fear that they might inadvertently say something sensitive in a recording, so it is important to tell them that they can put conditions on the use of their interview if they wish. This is the time to talk about the agreement form.

Keep the preliminary meeting brief, less than an hour. You do not want your interviewee telling all their stories at this meeting. Make an appointment to come back and record them, preferably within a week. A longer delay can make some people anxious about the process.

It is advisable to ring on the day of the interview to make sure that it is still convenient.

Checklist for preliminary meetings

  • Keep it brief.
  • Explain why you are doing the project.
  • Explain what you will be covering in the interview.
  • Explain what will happen to the interview once you have finished with it.
  • Explain that the interviewee has the opportunity to place conditions on access to the interview on the agreement form.
  • Make an appointment to return with a recorder, preferably within a week.

If the interviewee is a member of your family or someone you know very well, you will still need to explain the project, get their agreement to record an interview, gather biographical information from them and explain the details above.

How to cite this page

Preliminary meeting, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated