The Art of the Oral Historian

David E. Russell, Director (retired)
Department of Special Collections
Donald C. Davidson Library
Santa Barbara, California 93106-9010

Oral History Methodology, The Art of Interviewing

Oral history is as old as antiquity. Herodotus, if you recall, set down many of his stories from accounts he heard on his travels. Historians have always had recourse to interviews. I suppose Hubert H. Bancroft, the California publisher and historian, deserves credit for taking a big step; he had his assistants interview a host of old-timers in the 1890s: ’49-ers, men who'd built the Central Pacific, and so on. His interviewers took shorthand, and their transcripts were deposited in the Bancroft Library (now at the University of California in Berkeley); the immediate purpose was to provide material for Bancroft's multi volume history of western America.

Allan Nevin’s contribution was the idea that such should be done continuously, and on the broadest possible scale, for the benefit of scholars generally. He established our office in 1948. Since then, the idea has been taken up by quite a number of institutions in this country and abroad. --Louis M. Starr, Columbia University

I. Significance of Oral History:

Oral historians document the past by preserving insights not found in printed sources. The skilled practitioner must remain impartial, listen, and stay in the background. And yet he or she must also serve as a catalyst and direct the line of inquiry by asking questions that probe areas of interest, clarify ambiguous statements, and produce transitions for the reader. The final objective is not to interpret, but to record factual evidence and, thereby, to create primary documents from which historians can reconstruct the past.

Because of their focus on the subjective, oral histories can provide insights not normally found in more traditional reviews or summaries. The interview process practiced by oral historians affords participants in historical events an opportunity to address the historical record directly, to clarify what they see as misconceptions in third-person accounts, to discuss their own motives and those of other participants, and to provide their own personal assessment of the significance of the events in which they took part. This approach makes possible a clearer understanding of the intent of the participants than could be inferred from a record of the events alone.

When viewed from this perspective, oral history is one of the most important analytical tools available to researches today; and its importance is destined to grow as the telephone, fax machine, and e-mail continue to transform the type of materials being sent to archives. Without such traditional sources as correspondence files, diaries, and personal notes, (i.e. the current Supreme Court case, concerning the notes taken by Mrs. Clinton’s attorneys), oral history may become the only viable alternative left for those wanting to obtain the same type of insights these traditional sources provided. And, if the trend continues, the need to preserve existing oral history collections, to collect privately held ones, and to create accessible finding aids and make them available to scholars will become even more imperative.

Although the Oral History Association provides guidelines for conducting interviews and for creating oral history archives, which are readily available, historians, political scientists, and anthropologists continue to use a variety of methods on an ad hoc basis. Viewed as part of their research, the tapes and transcripts these scholars produce in the process of writing usually remain in their files, and only surface if and when they decide to donate their papers to a library. However, this is not the case with university based oral history programs, where interview guidelines are followed, and the audio tapes and transcripts are made available to the public.

II. Methodology

The methodology is based on a number of academic disciplines, including history, sociology, anthropology, law, journalism, and psychology. Each of these disciplines has contributed important insights into the art of interviewing, and has enriched the methods used by oral historians. Their interview styles contain a number of strengths and weaknesses. And a close examination of an audio tape produced by a practitioner from each of these professions would more than likely reveal unique features that could be traced to their training. These differences, though minor in appearance, can and often do drastically alter the outcome of an interview. Therefore, it is important to underscore that the following methodology is not based on the methods found in most oral history manuals. Rather it represents an eclectic approach to oral history, and is based on principles taken from journalism, law, psychology, and history. Its design is meant for book length oral histories, but it can easily be adapted for use in anything from a single interview to a research project involving a number of subjects.



The methodology entails three distinct phases: conducting the preliminary research, creating a research design: writing a treatment, and completing the interview process.

1. Preliminary Research

The research phase involves a number of interrelated steps:

  1. Literature search. Identify and research existing secondary and primary historical records. Prepare an historical file containing materials from these sources relating to the life experiences of the subjects, and time period to be covered in the interviews.
  2. Biographical file. Prepare a biographical file on each of the subjects to be interviewed, these should include newspaper articles, book reviews, journal articles, and other related material such as entries from Who's Who and biographical dictionaries.
  3. Based on your research, determine the order the subjects should be interviewed.
  4. Contact each subject, by telephone or through a letter, and define the purpose and scope of the project, and arrange for an overview interview.

2. Designing a Treatment

  1. Conduct an overview interview. This is a general session, lasting no more than an hour; the questions should be general in scope, and directed only to the subject's personal experiences. The objective is to define the subject's involvement in the issues under investigation, and to identify those areas where he or she can shed new light on the topic or issue being studied. Even if the subject is unable to do this, they usually are able to provide corroborating evidence.
  2. Write a treatment. Based on your preliminary research, and what you have learned from the first interview, write a treatment for the project. (See the following example.) The treatment contains a list of the topics to be covered in the interview process; in projects involving more than a single interview, each interview is designated as a chapter, as in the case of a biography, or as a distinct issue, or part of a study. In preparing the treatment for an oral history for a major trial, for example, one might select the process of "Assessing the evidence in the case" as the subject for an entire interview. ---The treatment is given to the subject before the start of the interview process; it helps the subject prepare for each recording session, and enhances the accuracy of the testimony while preserving the spontaneity of the interview. The Quiet Revolutionary is the oral history of Carl Rogers; the treatment for this work is divided into ten chapters, with each chapter containing ten talking points. While helping to give form to the interviews, the treatment is not a fixed series of questions, but rather a working outline which can be modified to include new material introduced by the subject in the course of the interview process.

The Quiet Revolutionary

Chapter One "The Formative Years"

[Tape 1: Side One]

1.) Biographical sketch of family.
2.) Relationship with mother and father.
3.) Sibling rivalry; teasing and nicknames.
4.) Religion, morning worship.
5.) Literary Influences, and fantasy world.

[Tape 1: Side Two]

6.) Grade School in Oak Park, friends, teachers, and family.
7.) Warwood, adjustment to new environment, and the importance of the home as an outlet for social activity.
8.) The influence of your brother Lester.
9.) Science, Luna Moths, and scientific agriculture.
10.) High School Years, teachers, course of study, school activities, and social life.
11.) Summer in Kenmore, North Dakota.

Chapter Two: "The University of Wisconsin"

[Tape 2: Side One]

1.) First two years: Selection of agriculture as a major, Ag-Triangle.
2.) YMCA, The Des Moines Convention.
3.) The World Student Christian Federation's Conference in Peking, China, first published article in the Intercollegian.
4.) Extended travel in the Orient, Kenneth Latorette, China Diary, climbing Mt. Fujiyama, and the human condition within mainland China.
5.) Personal growth--A turning point, the questioning of western values, and parent's reaction.

[Tape 2: Side Two]

6.) Return to the University of Wisconsin, changed major to history, professors: Carl Russell Fish, George Sellery, and Eugene Byrne.
7.) Phi Beta Kappa, and Alpha Kappa Lambda Fraternity.
8.) B.A. Thesis: "The Development of Luther's Idea of Authority in Religion."
9.) Helen Elliot.
10.) Decision to attend Union Theological Seminary, parent's reaction, marriage, and move to New York City.

The following except, which is in response to talking point four from the above treatment, is taken from the second chapter in Rogers' oral history, Carl Rogers and David E. Russell, The Quiet Revolutionary, (Santa Barbara: UCSB Oral History Program, 1988.) pp. 271


Views on Christianity

—It was at that time, I guess, that you went off to travel with Latourette and began to question the validity of the Judeo-Christian ethic.

—Here's a thumbnail sketch of the situation: I went to that conference as a naive, religious, Christian, midwestern, parochial boy, brought up quite narrowly in every respect patriotic, nationalistic, and so forth. To be faced with an international conference of really very good minds, diverse opinions; a lot of discussion about war; about social issues, about international problems; seeing a new culture, seeing many cultures at the conference, and one culture closely it was just an absolutely mind-boggling experience and I evidently was very open to it. And I think one reason was that all contact with home and other background was cut off. In these days of airmail, cables, and international phone calls, it's just unimaginable, but at that time I went for weeks without any contact with home. In fact, by the time I wrote home, which took weeks for the letter to get there and weeks for a reply to come and to track me down wherever I was in China, it would be two to three months. In other words, it wasn't until I was beginning to think about coming home that I began to get replies to my early letters. So I was totally free to think my own thoughts, with only my imagination of how my messages were being received. I was writing home very excited letters with all these new ideas how marvelous they were, and weren't they great?, and so forth. It seems never to have occurred to me that they might be otherwise received at home. And I was pretty fortunate in that I was able to really think my own thoughts and really reverse many of my positions quite painlessly. Only when I was fairly well-fixed in new ideas did I begin to get some inkling that these ideas were not very welcome at home. And I know it wasn't until I landed at Vancouver that I got a letter from my mother it was waiting for me there which essentially disowned me psychologically not to the extent that I couldn't come home, but it was clear that these ideas were just not acceptable to her that her son couldn't possibly believe that sort of thing. I don't recall the wording of the letter, I just know that I felt cut off and that it was okay. I was solid enough now that that was okay.

—What was the basis of the disagreement between you and your mother?

—As to the bases of the differences, I think there were several. For one thing, although I never was a committed pacifist, I'm sure that my antiwar leanings and pacifistic leanings would have been very unwelcome at home and were very unwelcome. Then, I had seen a lot of the downtrodden. I had seen peasants working in the fields. I had seen little children working in the silk factories, working with the silkworm cocoons and steaming water all day long. I had seen women loading coal at Nagasaki into the ship just unbelievably hard work so that I was very sympathetic to the needs of labor, which was not a subject on which my father would have agreed with me. But certainly the thing that caused the greatest concern was that my religious ideas were much more liberal, and probably the prime thing, which was really not fully developed until on board ship coming home, was my belief that Jesus was a man a very outstanding man but certainly a human being who was worthy of a great deal of respect and admiration but who was not divine in some very special sense. Well, that was anathema. That was pretty bad. Those were some of the areas of really profound disagreement.

—How would you define your religious convictions after the trip to China?

—I think I would say I had quite clear religious convictions. I was very much helped by a man named Henry Sharman, whose books on... The Sayings of Jesus was one of his. He's one of these teachers who was a good enough teacher that I never was quite sure what he believed. He emphasized what Jesus had said and what seemed the most reliable text of the various texts and so on. It came through very clearly to me, and I think probably this was his view, too that here was an unusual man who said some very wise things. I remember one night on board ship coming back feeling a sense of real loss and shock to think I'd given up this divinity for a man. But then, as I thought further about it and considered it more, that seemed a very not only a reasonable thing but a ber base for moving ahead than to think that here was a divine being. So no, I don't think I did feel particularly confused. I felt very open-minded, which also would have been very unacceptable at home, but with some definite directions. I didn't feel, Oh my, I've lost my religion. I never had that feeling, quite. I felt I had changed my religious views very markedly.

—Having rid yourself of the notion of feeling superior or sorry for those who hadn't embraced Christianity, did you begin to look at individuals differently?

—I looked upon people with more compassion than I had before. I had seen things. I had been in a Chinese prison, which was a horrible experience. That was with Ken Latourette. I had much greater respect for the range of human nature and human beings. I had talked informally with General Leonard Wood, who was governor general of the Philippines. I had met peasants. I had seen horrible examples of treatment of Chinese convicts in prison. So I had seen an enormous range of persons and felt a lot of compassion for people and interest in people.

—The other would come later.

—Yeah. The other would come later.

Climb up Mt. Fujiyama

—I know you have a keen interest in art from both Helen's painting and your own work on mobiles. In the East, you were introduced to a completely different culture a culture that worships beauty and whose art celebrates nature. In this respect, was your climb up Mt. Fujiyama a religious experience?

—I don't think their view toward art had any real impact on me. I don't think I was sophisticated enough to appreciate that. Scenery, yes. I was just rereading the other day what I wrote in my journal about the climb up Fujiyama: it was clearly a religious experience for me. We climbed all night long up this mountain of cinders, which is really what it is. At 3:00 in the morning I pushed on ahead of my two companions because I'd been told that you should be up at the summit by 5:30 or so to see the sunrise. And in those days people were not accustomed to looking down on clouds. It was the first time in my life, or the life of anybody in my family, I'm sure, that I had climbed high enough to look down on a cloud blanket over the whole country – beautiful. You could see the light coming and the billowing clouds and the sun rising. A whole line of pilgrims shouted when the sun came up and it was a remarkable experience full of a real spiritual feeling of wonder and awe. I think that's one aspect of religion that I've never lost the sense of awe at many natural phenomena, and that was certainly such an experience then.

Return to the United States

— After you returned to the US, did you go home right away? What was the reception like?

—Yes, I went home right away. It's interesting that I have no clear memory of that. (Well, to be honest, I have no clear memory.) What I remember in coming home was recontacting Helen, but that'll be a separate topic.

—Upon your return, you toyed with the idea of joining the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which was a pacifist group. Was that an important element in your life at the time?

—No, I had forgotten that. I know that I did know some people in the FOR and I probably did consider joining them but I know that was not a major element.


  1. Review Treatment with Subject The objective of this meeting is to review the treatment, and research any documents the subject may have in his or her possession (photographs, letters, contracts, newspaper clippings) that pertain to the oral history project.
  2. Establish an interview schedule for the oral history. The interviews should be spaced out over a period of time, never schedule more then one interview a week.

 3. Writing a Slate of Questions

  • Write a slate of questions for each interview; the questions should be prepared a few days before each session, which makes it possible to incorporate any new developments that may come to light.
  • Use the Funnel Approach in writing questions, always moving from the general to the specific.
  • Clear communication is essential for a good slate of questions. Therefore, only one concept or issue should be included in a question.
  • The most effective questions are worded as simply as possible. Avoid: technical jargon, slang, and colloquialisms.
  • Do not phrase questions in such a way that suggests a response or presupposes a certain state of affairs.
  • Exercise caution when using general adjectives and adverbs, such as several, most and usually. These words do not convey the same meaning to every one.
  • Avoid using words with vaguely defined meanings, such as population and environment, which may have different meanings to different people.
  • Avoid using hypothetical questions.

III. The Interview Process

The interviews are conducted at a site selected by the subject usually their residence and, if at all possible, in a room away from the telephone, television set or any other element that would interfere with the quality of the recording. Ideally, the interview should not exceed 60 minutes, and there should never be more than one session per week. As soon as possible after the completion of each interview, a tape log and transcription of the interview is prepared and made available to the subject. This sequence of events is repeated until all the scheduled interviews are finished, at which time a draft copy of the complete transcript is sent to the subject for review.

Conducting an Interview

  • Remind the narrator of the interview appointment. Make a telephone call to the subject the day before the scheduled interview and ask if he or she is in good health, and if there is anything that you can do, such as look up a date or locate an article that may help prepare them for the session.
  • Practice with the tape recorder.
  • Record a formal introduction for the interview: site the full name of subject, your name, and the location, date and time of the interview.
  • "This is tape two in the oral history of Carl R. Rogers. The interview was conducted by David E. Russell at the Rogers' residence in La Jolla, California on June 2, 1985 at approximately 10 AM."
  • Setting up the equipment and starting the interview. Setting the proper recording level is very important, and this should be determined during your first meeting, and you should also established the location where the interview is to be recorded.
  • Establish rapport with the subject: make eye contact, and listen emphatically to the subject as he or she answers your questions.
  • Avoid taking notes during the recording session. This takes your attention away from the subject, and can give the impression that you are not interested in what is being discussed or wish to move on to the next topic.
  • Turning the tape.

Closing the interview.

Verification: research after the interview

"Tips for Interviewers"

1. Establish eye contact. LISTEN! LISTEN! LISTEN!
2. Be non-judgmental. Don't let your research show.
3. Create a non threatening, relaxed environment.
4. Ask questions that require more than a "yes" or "no" answer.
5. Ask one question at a time.
6. Ask brief questions.
7. Start with non controversial questions; save the delicate ones, if there are any, until later in the interview.
8. Do not let brief periods of silence fluster you.
9. Do not worry if your questions are not as beautifully phrased as you would like them to be for posterity.
10. Do not interrupt a good story because you have thought of a question, or because your narrator is straying from the planned outline.
11. Try to establish at important points in the interview where the narrator was or what his or her role was in the event. This will enable you to determine how much is eyewitness information and how much is based on reports of others.
12. Do not challenge accounts you think may be inaccurate.
13. Try to conduct the interview with only one narrator present.

IV. Transcribing

Make a copy of the tape (real time); the original tape should never be used for transcribing, as the process can and often does result in tape being damaged. Write a tape log. (See example.)
Methods of transcribing.


Review transcript.
Fill in missing names and dates, and fact check the transcript.
Preserve spontaneity and integrity of the recorded interview.
Ask the narrator to proof read the first draft; the task should not result in the subject being allowed to rewrite the text, which is often the case when they first see the transcript.
Correct errors.

Equipment and Tapes

Tape recorders.
Transcribing machines.

V. Legal Considerations

Copyright law.
Use of Contracts vs. Release Forms.
Restrictive use clause.

VI. Legal Responsibilities

1. Release Form.

A signed release form is the legal requirement for depositing an oral history interview in a research library; one is also needed if material is to be published.
The release form protects your client's interests. It is important to go over the restriction clause in the release form. Keep in mind that it is also your responsibility to not only protect yourself and the institution you represent but to also advise the client on how he or she could be subject to legal action if liable information should surface when the oral history is made available to the public. Advise your client about the statute of limitations etc.

2. M E D I G A T I O N

3. Keep in mind that just because you get a release form signed you are not exempt from a law suit.

VII. Creating an Archive

Contents of an Oral History Collection

1. History of the Interview Process: this three to five page essay should include your research, input from the subject, issues the subject refused to discuss and any other problems that arose during the interview process. It should also include a description of where the interviews were conducted, and the age and health of the subject etc.
2. Copy of Signed Release Form
3. Overview Interview and Treatment
4. Unedited Transcripts
5. Edited Transcripts











Family history: Grandparent's occupations. Description of extended family. Father's youth in San Francisco. Mother's early years in Poland. And her parent's decision to immigrate to America.


Parent's education: Father's decision to study law and mother' fight to enter medical school. Student life at Berkeley during the 1930s.


Courtship and Marriage


Opening law office in Orange county. Mother's internship.


The Early Years. Parent's attitude towards education, grammar school years, anti-Semitic taunts of neighborhood children.


Move to New York City. First impression. Adjustments P.S. 155, riding the subway, Central Park and the Empire State Building.

... etc.

Sample Oral History Release Agreement

Oral History Release Agreement

I, We, __________________________________________ , herewith present to the Regents of the University of California, irrevocably and for the use and purpose of the UCSB Library, all right, title, and interest in the following oral history interviews received in the Library on __________________________________;

Description: provide a brief listing of the tape(s), including the date (s) of the interview(s), the subject matter covered, and any supporting materials such as transcripts, tape logs, or notes taken during or pertaining to the recording session. (List attached)

I agree that this material may be made available for research according to the established procedures of the UCSB Library, subject only to those restrictions specified below.

Date of Agreement: __________________________________

Signed: _________________________   _________________________
                Narrator                                     Interviewer


Taxpayer ID or Social Security number: _____________________________

Telephone Number: _____________________________

If corporate/joint gift, name of corporate/joint donor: ______________________________

The UCSB Library hereby gratefully accepts this gift to the Regents of the University of California in accordance with the conditions specified above.

Date: ____________________ Signed:_____________________________________
                                                                 Library Representative

Suggested Reading List:

General Oral History Works:

Willa K. Baum, Transcribing and Editing Oral History (Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1987)

Julie Jones-Eddy, Homesteading Women: An Oral History of Colorado, 1890-1950 (New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1992)

Ronald J. Grele, Envelopes of Sound: The Art of Oral History (Chicago, Ill: Precedent Pub, 1985)

Arthur A. Hansen, Japanese American World War II Evacuation Oral History Project (Westport, CT: Meckler, 1991)

Ruth Edmonds Hill, The Black Women Oral History Project (Westport, CT: Meckler, 1991)

Cliff Kuhn, Living Atlanta: An Oral History of the City, 1914-1948 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990)

David Lance, An Archive Approach to Oral History (London: Imperial War Museum in association with International Association of Sound Archives, 1978)

Richard Lourie, Russia Speaks: An Oral History from the Revolution to the Present (New York: Harper-Collins, 1991)

Trevor Lummis, Listening to History: the Authenticity of Oral Evidence (London: Hutchinson Education, 1987)

John A Neuenschwander, Oral History and the Law (Denton, Tex: Oral History Association, 1985)

Lucette Valensi, Jewish Memories (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991)