Oral history guide

Page 5 – Processing the interview

Processing the interview

Checklist for initial processing

  • Write an email or letter of thanks to the interviewee enclosing a copy of the agreement form for their records.
  • Make a copy of the interview and label all recordings. Include name of interviewee and interviewer and date.
  • Think critically about your interview. Give consideration to what worked well and what could be improved next time.

Abstracting and transcribing

An abstract is a comprehensive listing of subjects covered in the interview, with a record of where on the recording the information can be found (see sample abstract, 57k, pdf).

If you abstract an interview, potential users will have to listen to it to obtain the information it contains. If you transcribe it, researchers need only read the transcript.

A transcript is a written verbatim copy of what is in the recording (see sample transcript, 83k, pdf).


The purpose of an abstract is to give the user an idea of what the interview contains without providing detail of what the interviewee says. If a researcher wants to use the information, she or he must listen to the interview.

  • Use words like 'explains', 'describes', 'mentions', 'recounts' and 'recalls' to give the researcher an idea of what is included and how much material there is on a particular topic. 'Mentions how travelled to school', for example, means that there is less information than if you had written 'Describes how travelled to school'. It is important to choose your words carefully.
  • Include a timecode along the left-hand side of the page, so listeners can locate relevant parts of the interview quickly and easily.
  • Quotes help to give an idea of how the interviewee speaks, and they may be used to highlight key points in the testimony or clarify a difficult technical explanation. However, use them sparingly; you are not making a transcript.
  • Do not include too much information. The abstract is only a guide to the contents of the recording (around 1½–2 A4 pages of abstract per 30 minutes of interview).
  • When you are happy that the abstract gives an accurate summary of what the interview contains, copy it and place it, with the agreement form and biographical data about the interviewee, in an interview file.


Transcribing is very time-consuming. A verbatim transcript will entail about six or seven hours' work for each hour of material you have recorded. However, they are useful for accessibility, and will be helpful to the archive if recording in a language other than English.

  • Include a title page with the name of the interviewee, the interviewer and the date of the interview. State clearly whether restrictions have been placed on any parts of the interview.
  • Listen to about 10 minutes of the interview before starting to transcribe.
  • Transcribe what you hear. Do not put words or phrases into the interviewee's mouth, even if what they say is awkward or ungrammatical. Do not change word order.
  • Make a first draft of the transcript.
  • Punctuate so that the transcript makes sense of the words as they were spoken. Be consistent in your punctuation; don't, for example, indicate a pause by a dash (–) in some transcripts and three dots (...) in others.
  • Put in full stops at what seem to be natural sentence breaks. Transcripts with little punctuation are very difficult to read, let alone understand.
  • Make a new paragraph when the subject of discussion changes, to avoid long unbroken passages.
  • Include word contractions as they occur, for example, 'don't' and 'wouldn't'.
  • If any words are indistinct, leave a space or underline your guess, so that when you make the second draft you will be aware that you need to listen especially carefully at that point. (You will now see the advantage of getting interviewees to spell names of places and people on tape.)
  • Use 'stage directions' with care. Some may be useful to help understand what is happening, for example '[reading from newspaper]' or '[interruption for telephone call]', but those which make interpretations – '[ laughs sarcastically ]' – should be used with caution.
  • When you are satisfied that what is on the page accurately reflects what is on the tape, type a final copy and assemble the interview file.
  • Before the transcript is deposited in an archive or used in any publication, the interviewee should have the opportunity to check it. Do not let them edit it for grammatical purposes – remind them that we speak differently to how we write.

The interview file

Your budget will determine how the interview file is put together. It may consist of nothing more than:

Make copies of each of these and any other material you have (e.g., copies of newspaper cuttings, photographs, diary and log entries), and store them in a plastic cover.

Storing the recordings

Audio recordings require active, ongoing management to ensure that they continue to be accessible over time.

It is important that recordings are stored in the best possible conditions, and that any necessary equipment to play them is maintained to ensure access to them in the future. The Alexander Turnbull Library has preservation advice for both physical sound collections, such as cassette tapes and born-digital materials.

Store scanned or born-digital documents in a digital folder. Ensure that any digital files have secure backups, and that these are stored in a separate location from the primary set of digital files. For example, the primary interview files may be in a folder on a computer, and the backup set on a portable hard drive. Make sure that any physical media or electronic folders are clearly labelled with their contents.

If you do not have a secure, climate-controlled space to store your oral history recordings, you may wish to consider offering them to a collecting institution, such as the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, or a local library or museum. 

Always check before you begin interviewing that your repository of choice can archive recordings as audio-visual materials have specific conservation requirements for long term preservation.

All archives will require a complete interview file for each interview, as well as supporting documentation about the interview, including signed agreement forms detailing access and use conditions for the interview; abstract or transcript documents; biographical information; a listing of interviewees; and contact details for any permissions holders. Individual repositories may have other requirements as well.

How to cite this page

'Processing the interview', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/hands/processing-the-interview-a-guide-to-recording-oral-history, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 30-May-2023