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Course & Subject Guides

Oral History Toolkit: A How-To and Resource Guide

This guide serves as a toolkit for students, staff and faculty who intend to create an oral history project or are curious about how to use oral histories as primary resources.

Guidelines for Conducting Oral Histories

As preparations for an oral history project begin, it will likely be helpful to create a research file on all who are going to be interviewed for the project. The file could contain research notes taken in preparation for the interview. You can't start cold, you have to know something about your person in order to interview them! The file may contain correspondence, news clippings, or samples of work created by the interview subject. It is a good idea to take a photograph or two of the interview subject to include in the file. Remember, preparation for the interview is key to its success.

Be sure to have a look at the Oral History Association's Best Practices to learn about preparing for the interview process and conducting interviews. The site also includes many helpful resource links. Also, have a look at the University of Arkansas LibGuide for a tip sheet to help with interviewing. Six Rules for Creating an Oral History may also be useful in understanding narrative structures of oral histories, capturing the voice of those being interviewed, and editing the oral history project, among other topics. 

Privacy Concerns

Privacy and confidentiality are important issues in conducting oral histories. Interview subjects have a right to confidentiality of the interview unless otherwise stipulated in the release signed prior to being interviewed. In any interview candor is important. During the interview, the subject may make statements where they share industry secrets or confidential information. They may make statements that could be considered slanderous or defamatory or be potentially used against them. They may discuss delicate and difficult experiences and situations. It is important that the subject be assured that anything said during the interview is held in confidence. You may offer assurances such as anonymization or even closing the interview to public research for a limited amount of time. It is important to remember that you as the interviewer own the questions that you have created and the subject owns the answers to those questions. That means that the responses are covered by the copyright term of  70 years after the last author's death. There may be occasions where the original interview recording fully represents every topic discussed but the transcript contains a redacted version of the interview. 

Some universities may require an oral history project be submitted to the Institutional Review Board for evaluation. The University of Pittsburgh considers oral history projects to be scholarly or journalistic activities and not subject to review. However, there are occasions where an outside funder may want verification and that can be provided. For more information, please see Human Research Protection Office guidelines on exempt reviews. Loyola University Chicago has an excellent discussion regarding institutional review boards and oral histories that provides insight into the process.

Below are resources that help you navigate privacy and confidentiality.

Questions To Consider

The IMLS-sponsored ILEAD project created helpful questions for interviewers to consider. As always, it is important to do your research and ask questions specifically related to the interview subject and topic focus of the project.


  •  What is your name?
  •  Were you ever given or have you ever gone by a nickname? What was it and how did you come to have it?
  •  When were you born and how old are you now?
  •  Where were you born and where else have you lived?
  •  What is your occupation


  •  How many siblings do you have and are they older or younger than you?
  •  What did your parents do for a living?
  •  What memorable stories do you have from when you were growing up?
  •  How did you meet your husband/wife?
  •  Is your family larger or small?
  •  How involved is/was your extended family in your life?
  •  Were your parents born in the same town as you or were they originally from somewhere else?
  •  Can you tell me from what country your family name is originally from?
  •  What special traditions do you and your family share for holidays or special occasions?
  •  Can you tell me any memorable stories about your family or any family legends you heard growing up?


  •  What were you doing when this event occurred?
  •  What did you witness during the event? Who were you with?
  •  What was your reaction to this event at the time?
  •  Do you still understand the event in the same context as you did when you lived through it?
  •  Did the event have any short-term effects on you and/or your family? Were there any long-term effects?

Local History

  •  Talk a little about the place where you grew up—was it a tight-knit community?
  •  Did you know all of your neighbors growing up?
  •  What places in your town hold special memories for you? Why?
  •  When and how was your town originally founded?
  •  What momentous or important events have occurred in the town during your lifetime or since its founding?
  •  Was anyone famous or noteworthy born in your town? Who are they and what are they best known for?
  •  What special events or traditions does your community have?
  •  Are there any large businesses or significant industries associated with your area?
  •  Are there any larger businesses or significant industries associated with your area?


  •  What led you to begin your current project?
  •  Can you tell me more about what your project is and what you hope to accomplish?
  •  How long do you expect the project to take you?
  •  What benefits will this project have for you, your institution and/or the world at large?


  •  What has provided you with the greatest satisfaction or happiness in your life?
  •  If you could change one thing in your life, what would it be?
  •  What is the most significant change you see in the world around you from when you were growing up?