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Archival Leaflets - Oral History


L. Dale Patterson, Archivist



Oral history, manuscript collection, archival records, and printed historical sources complement one another. Tape-recorded recollections often contain information not found in the written record.

Certain basic procedures make oral history collections easier to describe, maintain, and render more accessible to the researchers. Interviews that reflect adequate preparation, attention to technical quality, and solid content are added to the collection as part of the Commission’s permanent research resources.

Oral history tapes are kept in cassette form for use by researchers. The creation and preservation of one hour on tape involves a substantial investment of time. Researchers are encouraged to make tapes of good technical quality and solid content.


Sources for historical study are usually conflicting, incomplete representations of history "as it actually happened." Newspapers, personal letters, official records, and other historical sources all have strengths and weaknesses as tools for reconstructing the past. Before undertaking an oral history interview, the researcher should ask: "What information can this person’s recollections add to the historical record?"

An oral history interviewer has a special responsibility to the historical record. Although two historians may differ, for example, in their interpretation of a newspaper account of Lincoln’s assassination, the article itself will not change; it remains available for later scrutiny. An oral history interviewer, however, helps to create a primary document. By manner, assumptions, questions, and techniques the interviewer may taint the validity of information solicited. For this reason, the material recorded in an oral history interview should be as much as possible the creation of the narrator. The interviewer should not contrive information to support a pet theory.


The quality of an oral history interview depends upon the interviewer’s knowledge of the subject, the questions asked, and the narrator’s responses. A scholar conducting oral history research cannot and should not control exactly what the narrator says, but should research the subject before the interview, make written suggestions about what the interview should accomplish and ask questions that will elicit reflective answers.

Before writing to the narrator, an oral history researcher should have a solid idea of the interview’s purpose. Consult published histories relating generally to your subject, check finding guides for more specific material, and be aware of primary material directly related to your interview. If you plan to interview a former elected official, know the history of her or his constituency, any biographical accounts that may have been written about the person, and consult contemporary accounts in newspapers and other sources in preparation for your interview. Introduce yourself to the narrator through a letter describing the conditions and subject of the proposed interview. Why do you think this person is important? What do you think the tape-recorded recollections will add to the historical record? Confirm the interview appointment by telephone. This allows the narrator to react to your letter, ask questions about the interview, and make additions to your suggestions for its contents.

Begin the recording by casually stating your name, the date, the narrator’s name, and the general subject of the interview. A typical recording session may last around two hours. Do not rush the narrator; do not ask painful questions immediately; avoid tactless interruptions to correct or expand what has been said; and try not to talk more than absolutely necessary. You can always return for another session. Scholars using oral history material realize that the narrator’s memory may imperfect or the account biased. Encourage an honest, spontaneous memoir; no one should expect an oral history interview to be as well-organized as a book or an article. Note taking may encourage the narrator. Copies of your notes, correspondence, a summary of the interview, and a completed release form must accompany the tapes.


1. The American Historical Association’s annual bibliography, Writings on American History, cites books and articles that can provide general background information on a variety of subjects. Also look in America: History and Life.

2. The Harvard Guide to American History suggest basic works that can also provide general background material for oral history researchers.

3. The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature and the New York Times Index will lead you to literature on general trends of national and international importance.

4. Biographical directories are published not only for individuals of national and international importance, but also for local and state leaders and significant individuals in many fields of professional endeavor. A reference librarian can lead you to these and other helpful aids, if you are not familiar with them already.

5. The General Commission on Archives and History as well as your local conference archives will have resources which will be useful in your preparation. These would include annual conference journals, and annual conference newspapers, as well as reports from the various boards and agencies of the denomination.

6. Organizations and individuals with your narrator has associate may be good sources for background information.

7. If all else fails, ask the narrator. Many people keep clippings, photographs, and scrapbooks of their lives, which you could consult in preparation for the interview. Don’t hesitate to ask the narrator’s advice on what to discuss.

8. Consult secondary books and articles about oral history; someone may have already undertaken interviews similar to your own. William Moss, Oral History Program Manual, and Paul Thompson, Voice of the Past, discuss how to conduct interviews and the uses of oral history evidence; T. Harry Williams, Huey Long, is an excellent political biography which illustrates the value of oral history; Thompson’s The Edwardians uses oral history to construct a group portrait of various elements in early twentieth-century Britain; and the oral History Association’s Oral History Review publishes articles and books reviews on techniques and uses of oral history. Any person seriously interested in oral history should be a member of the Association.

9a In summary, don’t go into an interview without adequate preparation. Your knowledge of the subject will impress the narrator and cause him or her to believe that you are worthy of confidence.


1. Inform the narrator in advance of the conditions and subject of the interview.

2. Experiment with you equipment before going to the interview.

3. Test your equipment after your arrive.

4. Remember that cassette tapes have a few seconds of "lead time" and do not begin to record the moment you turn on the machine.

5. Use good quality, sixty-minute cassette tapes; longer tapes are more likely to break and shorter ones do not provide enough time on each side.

6. Don’t store used or unused tapes in a hot, cold, humid, or dusty place. The back window or dashboard of an automobile, for example, is not the best place to carry tapes to or from an interview.

7. Record the date, place and names of the participants at the beginning of the interview. This should be done informally without a lot of fanfare.

8. Do not record near air conditioners in the summer or heating vents in the winter. Check electrical circuits for possible interference.

9. Remember that a good interview is more a monologue than a dialogue.

10. When a cassette reaches the end of side one turn it over to side two without rewinding it.

11. If your recorder does not "click off" automatically at the end of one side of the cassette, remember to watch the time and change the tape.

12. During the interview, do not fiddle with the tape recorder without a good reason.

13. Punch out the "tabs" on the cassette immediately after you finish with it, but not before. This ensures that what you have recorded cannot be erased.

14. If you are using an outside microphone, keep it on a small stand. Do not handle the microphone while recording.

15. If you are using an outside microphone, do not pass it back and forth.

16. Cassette tapes come in a case. Keep the case. It protects the tape from dust.

17. Never use the same tape for interviews with more than one person.

18. Never use the same tape for more than one session of an interview with the same person.

19. Remember that an interview is not complete until you have obtained a valid certificate of gift or "release" form granting research access to the tape. Check with your conference archive or the General Commission on Archives and History for example forms.

20. An interview is also not complete until a concise summary of the interview has been made. In some place, perhaps on the gift form, summarize the contents of the interview in a concise paragraph. Mention your name, the narrator’s name, the date or dates of the interview, and events, times, people, and places discussed. Be specific in the description.

21. Label your tapes. Write the narrator’s name and the date on each side of each tape. For example: "Josephine Brown, October 16, 1959, tape 1, side 2." If one side of a cassette is blank, write "blank" on that side.

22. If the narrator has personal manuscripts or institutional records of historical significance, encourage him or her to donate them to a proper repository.

Remember that an interview is not complete until you have a valid certificate of gift or a release form granting research access to the tape. An example follows this section. An interview is also not complete until a concise summary of the interview has been made. Somewhere, perhaps on the gift form, summarize the contents of the interview in a paragraph. Mention your name, the subject's name, the date or dates of the interview, and events, times, people, and places discussed. Be specific in the description.

 Oral History Interview Summary Sheet

Date: 7/12/88 Subject's Name: Mary Burton Interviewer's Name: Dale Patterson Summary of the interview: (mention the following - events, times, people, and places discussed) Tape: 1 Side: 1 Childhood Early education College work at University of Denver Tape: 1 Side: 2 Preparation for missionary work Overseas work in China and India (1930-1938) Return home and further education Work of the Board END OF TAPE / INTERVIEW


General Commission on Archives and History The United Methodist Church P. O. Box 127 36 Madison Ave. Madison, NJ 07940 973-408-3189

We, the narrator and interviewer, do convey without reservation to the General Commission on Archives and History of The United Methodist Church, its successors and assigns, the tape recordings of interviews recorded on the ___________ day of __________, 19_____ at ____________________________________________________________________, as an unrestricted gift, and transfer(s) to the General Commission on Archives and History of The United Methodist Church, all legal title, copyright, literary property rights, and all other rights, including transcription and publication rights, in the materials we hold in them, except as noted below; the said gift to be administered by the General Commission on Archives and History of The United Methodist Church. (Restrictions or exceptions, if any) We agree that any items in the materials described which are believed to be inappropriate to the holdings of the General Commission on Archives and History of The United Methodist Church shall be disposed of by the Archivist as he or she sees fit. The General Commission on Archives and History of The United Methodist Church in return undertakes to house, care for, and otherwise administer these materials in the best interest of impartial scholarship, subject to the conditions specified above. Signature of donor(s) _________________________________________ Date __________                               Subject                      _______________________________________________________                      Address                      ________________________________________ Date __________                      Interviewer                      _______________________________________________________                      Address Title ( if rep. of an organization or business) _________________________________ Signature of Archivist ________________________________________ Date______ Date of receipt of gift _________