Oral history

Oral history is the recording of people’s memories for posterity, something that’s now well established in community history gathering and archiving.

Unlike written sources, oral history can bring out the hidden and secret stories of individuals and communities – in their own words.

Follow the guidance below to make the most of any oral histories you collect as part of an archiving project.

Be inclusive

Projects should seek to represent an accurate range of different relevant groups and their experiences through oral history. This might include people from different social classes, age groups or residential statuses.

An inclusive collection of oral history will feature the views and opinions of different people to give an impression of their experience of the time period. History is about perceptions as well as facts, so it can be a good way to reflect on the way people view their communities.

Consider different approaches to recording oral history

You might want to take a nostalgic or scholarly approach to your oral history records, but try not to paint an unrealistic version of the past. The most useful records are ones that offer a complete look at a time period.

Some might favour a ‘life story’ approach – charting an individual’s life from start to finish. This can add context to historical information and help to illustrate a timeline of events. If considering this approach, you might want to include young people in your oral history as part of your pool of interviewees.

Conducting interviews

Preparing to interview

It’s important to prepare for your interview as best you can to make the recording process as smooth as possible. Here are a few tips and tricks to get you started:

  • schedule your interviews to happen one at a time if possible.
  • choose your location carefully; people usually prefer their own home or room where they feel more relaxed and will give better information
  • record an audio label yourself at the start of a recording, containing any relevant details – this tests equipment and offsets cost of physical labels
  • develop your questions in advance using research and prior knowledge to help structure the interview
  • make sure you record in a quiet space with minimal distractions that might interfere with the audio quality
  • consider your microphone technique and set up; the nearer the interviewee’s mouth the better, but away from anything that might make noise (such as earrings, lanyards or keys). Will you need one microphone or two?

During the interview

  • Make listening your priority; an oral history should be a one sided conversation with minimal input from the interviewer
  • Be polite, sympathetic and diplomatic throughout. Don’t impose your views, but be confident in challenging or asking for clarification on any statements where appropriate
  • If you use any visual prompts (i.e. photos) describe them for the listener’s benefit
  • Wait for a full answer to a question before speaking, avoid any verbal overlap or interjections
  • Take a notebook and make notes as you go. If there are any statements that inspire further questions you can write them down and ask them later without interrupting

After the interview

  • Get consent forms signed
  • Put the recording somewhere safe, making sure it is appropriately labelled
  • Make any copies for other purposes as soon as possible
  • Offer a free copy to the interviewee

Other considerations for oral history recordings

Check your equipment

Are you recording in the highest quality you can? Unsuitable equipment can produce recording which are difficult to listen to and transcribe effectively. Funding agencies (like the Heritage Lottery Fund) expect use of good quality equipment and that this will be included in your overall budget.

Wessex Film and Sound Archive will lend basic audio cassette recording equipment free of charge to a project for six months. Better quality recorders and microphones should be used by community historians if possible.

Using video

Domestic digital video camcorders are available for the same price as a good quality digital audio recorder, and can record in High Definition too. The added dimension provided for oral history recording has encouraged greater use of this equipment.

If recording video in your project, you will need to consider some additional elements like lighting, where the subject of the video should be placed and whether they’ll be talking directly into the camera or off to the side (position yourself accordingly). Always use a tripod for stability and avoid moving the camera around, using the zoom function to capture movement instead.


There are two copyrights in oral history recordings: one in the recording itself, the other in the words on the recordings. The former is owned by the person making the recording or their organisation/project. The latter is owned by the interviewee and their heirs.

At present, duration of either copyright is 50 years from the end of the year in which the person died.

Poetry, music and other works (which may form part of an oral history recording) hold separate copyrights of their own and must be cleared with the owner before copying for display or publication.

Consent forms

If a community wishes to benefit in any way from oral history at or near to the time in which the recordings were made, a consent form must be signed by both parties. This can take two forms:

  • a blanket consent for all possible uses of a recording
  • or a helpful list to which a person can agree or not, with a further section allowing them to stipulate any other details (whether sections of a recording are not to be made public until after their death, for example)

Moral rights

Interviewees also have moral rights in their words. This means that they cannot be misused in any way and the speaker should be always acknowledged, particularly in publications and displays, unless they wish to remain anonymous.

The Data Protection Act 1998 requires that their personal details are not given to a third party without permission, nor made public, for example on a database.