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Oral history guide

Page 2 – Preparation

Preparing for the interview


To record oral history you will need to use the best-quality equipment you can buy, borrow or hire. Poor sound recordings will be of little use to researchers in the future.

The recording specifications for digital sound that meets audio preservation standards are set to 48khz, 24bit WAV or AIFF files.

Abstracts and transcripts

If you plan to offer your oral history recording(s) to an archive, you will need to choose a way of summarising the contents. Without a written summary, recordings are of limited use to researchers. The most usual way to provide a summary is with an abstract of the interview (pdf, 57k).

It is also possible to do a word for word transcription (pdf, 83k) of the interview, but this is much more time-consuming – approximately six or seven hours for each hour of interview.

Whichever method you choose, allow more time than you think you will need. The amount of time spent interviewing is small in comparison to that spent organising and processing the interview once it is recorded.


If you plan to interview several people it is important to set up some housekeeping procedures as early as possible. Keep a notebook, card file, spreadsheet or table for each interviewee. In this file record:

  • the dates of your first contact, preliminary meeting and interview
  • when an email or letter of thanks was sent
  • whether a copy of the interview has been made
  • whether it has been transcribed or abstracted
  • where it has been stored
  • whether information borrowed has been returned.

Agreement forms

The NOHANZ code of ethics recommends that all oral history interviews be placed in a suitable repository. The purpose of this is to ensure the wishes of your interviewee are respected and there is no misunderstanding. For more information see NOHANZ Oral History Recording Agreement Explanatory Notes for Interviewers.

The agreement form should include:

  • the interviewee's name
  • the interviewer's name
  • the date of the interview
  • a list of possible uses to which the interview may be put, such as allowing researchers to access the material and allowing it to be quoted for publication in print or on the web. The interviewee may agree or disagree to any of these.
  • a statement of who owns the copyright for the interview. (This is important so that the material can be used in the future. Copyright is commonly held by the interviewer or organisation they work for but this should be negotiated and any agreement noted.)

Checklist before committing to an oral history interview

  • Can you obtain suitable equipment?
  • Where will the recordings be stored? Approach your preferred repository at an early stage in your planning – they may have particular requirements and a collection policy. See NOHANZ Selecting Repository information guide.
  • Who will process the recordings (prepare the abstract or transcript) so that the information is accessible?
  • Do you have housekeeping procedures so that you know what stage each interview has reached?
  • Have you developed a suitable agreement form?
  • If possible, attend an oral history training workshop.

Preliminary research

Before you start recording an interview spend some time researching your topic so you can make a list of questions that you want answered. To be worthwhile, your interview will be between two and four hours total duration. You need to have enough background information to cover the topic thoroughly.

  • For interviewing war veterans, refer to the background notes and suggested questions we have provided for the campaign(s) relevant to your interview in the From Memory section.
  • In your preliminary meeting ask your interviewee if you may borrow and copy parts of any written records, letters, diaries, service records, logs or newspaper cuttings they may have kept. Copy them as soon as possible, and return them at the interview. Add to your list any additional questions this material may inspire. If you do not end up interviewing the person, ensure that you return the material personally.

Your research should provide you with enough information to make you knowledgeable about your topic and give you a framework for the questions you will ask your interviewees.

  • Write a list of questions or an outline of topics to remind you what needs to be covered in each interview.
  • You do not need to stick rigidly to the list. If your interviewee begins to talk about something relevant and interesting that's not covered in your questions, let them talk, and ask more questions about that topic.
How to cite this page

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