Project Planning and Management

Project Planning and Management

by Marsha MacDowell

Why collect oral histories and expressions?

Histories and understandings of people, places, things, and events are constructed and reconstructed based on information—both tangible and intangible—that is available to those writing, telling, and interpreting the histories and knowledge. Some histories and cultural knowledge can be deduced only by examining tangible or physical evidence, such as printed texts, documents, photographs, the built environment, sound recordings, and others. Some histories and cultural knowledge are known only through oral narratives and expressions. By recording oral histories and expressions, the intangible histories and expressions become tangible. In addition to providing important primary source data for research, recorded oral material can be used or repurposed for many other interpretive, educational, and creative projects.

Do I even need to collect oral histories and expressions?

One might begin by saying that collecting oral histories and expressions is based on the assumption that oral material is being recorded for a purpose. The answer to the question of intention—why record and collect oral materials—is one that undergirds the structure of any recording endeavor. Recording oral material is a purposeful activity and an understanding of the intentionality of the activity can help guide any person interested in recording oral expressions and histories.

Both narrator and collector might have similar or distinctly different intentions and may be participating in the telling and recording for their own or others’ purposes. Because those intentions will color what is told, what is asked, what is collected, where and how the collection occurs, and what is done with the material, it is important to consider, discuss, and communicate the intentions at the outset of any collecting endeavor.

 Are you collecting data on a topic for general documentation purposes? Do you intend that the collected data will be used as a basis of description and analysis of a specific topic? Will you be strengthening knowledge about a particular topic, event, or person? Do you intend to improve existing records of information on the topic or to create a new repository of information? Are you planning to use materials in any public way, via publications, media products, the Internet, educational programs, or interpretive exhibitions?

Who should be interviewed?

We usually assume that recording oral materials involves at least two individuals, that narrator and the collector (although individuals could, themselves, serve as both teller and collector). Once you are clear on your purpose for recording oral material, then you can determine who you should interview.  For instance, if your focus is on a very specific event or activity, you will want to interview those who were directly involved with the event or activity. Certainly secondhand oral accounts provide data that can be mined, but generally it is first-person accounts of information and expressions that are more valued.

Does it make a difference who is the recorder/interviewer? 

The answer is both yes and no. Every time a story is told, the teller is consciously (or unconsciously) aware of whom she/he is telling the story to and why they are telling it. Just as you have determined a reason why you want to collect the story, interviewees also have their reasons why they want to tell their story. To reiterate—this is not just a conversation between two people—it is a joint, purposeful effort to record a narrative.

Age, sex, ethnicity, religion, and respective knowledge or experience with the interview topic are all factors which will have an impact on how the interviewee tells his/her story to the interviewer. Different people who interview the same person about the same topic will invariably get different versions of a story and sometimes entirely different stories. Interviewees might not share parts or all of a story if they do not feel comfortable, for whatever reason, with a person or if there is a cultural, legal, or other factor that makes it inappropriate for the oral material to be heard or collected by the recorder.

If the interviewer and the interviewee know each other well or perceive they share the same set of knowledge about the topic, the interviewer might leave out asking questions that seem too obvious. However, this might result  in important information not being recorded. Alternatively, when an interviewer asks someone certain types of questions only because they are familiar with the person or the topic, their mutual shared background becomes a plus.

The most important skills required of an interviewer are abilities to make the interviewee comfortable (physically and psychologically), to be a good listener, and to come to the interview prepared. Good interviewers use culturally appropriate and friendly body language (i.e. nodding encouragement, not sitting with arms crossed in front of their chest, leaning slightly towards interviewee), maintain good eye contact, don’t interrupt, use open-ended questions, and are aware of their facial expressions (i.e. smiling) to demonstrate that they are really attentive to–and interested in–what they are hearing.

What happens when the stories or accounts of the same event or activity differ from one teller to the next?

No story or account told by one person is going to be identical to an account of the same event or activity by the next person. A range of variables, including the teller’s reason for telling the story, the relationship of interviewer to interviewee, and the context in which the interview or story is told affect the rendition of the story told. Does this make one story or account more truthful or accurate than the next? No, it simply means that the renditions are different and any interpretation of the oral accounts will need to factor in these variables. The more stories collected about a particular topic provides a means of identifying information or characteristics unique to the individual or story as well as common elements among multiple individuals or stories.

Can oral histories be done by telephone or over the Internet?

The answer is, yes. When there is no other way to record an interview that is critical to the purpose of the project, an interview can be done by phone or over the Internet in a real-time format. However, both techniques—even when using a tool like Skype—lose the intimacy and spontaneity afforded by interviews done face-to-face. The interviewer and the interviewee do not have the benefit of observing or sensing facial or body gestures or the benefit of being surrounded by the items (i.e objects and photos) that can “jog” memories of the interviewee, asked about by the interviewer, or otherwise easily be referenced during the interview. It also makes it virtually impossible for the collector to identify and record the narrator’s physical environment – materials that are often important to understanding, interpreting, and [re]presenting narrators and their stories.

Where is the best place to conduct an interview?  When is the best time to interview someone?

The best time to interview someone is when it is convenient for them, and the best place to interview someone is where they feel comfortable, where there are good conditions for recording sound, and where it makes sense for the purpose of the project. Many times, the most comfortable place to conduct the interview is in familiar surroundings, such as a home or workplace, with the interviewee seated in their favorite spot. The familiarity of the location will put an interviewer at ease and the objects in the setting might jog the telling of certain stories.

It is also important that the setting have few distractions or noises. Small sounds that you are barely aware of, such as the refrigerator motor, ceiling fans, cars going by, side conversations, or computer hum are also picked up by the digital recorder and can become loud and overpowering when played back. On the other hand, some background noises, such as birdcalls and clocks chiming, might lend a quality of authenticity and individuality that is desirable.

Usually it is preferable to interview only one person at a time; having more than one voice on a recording makes it difficult to determine who is talking. However, there are times when having more than one person is advantageous; a story told by one person may jog the memory of another.

Making arrangements for the interview

Keep in mind that, if the project is motivated primarily by an interest of the collector, the interviewee is doing you a favor by sharing their stories. Schedule the interview at a time convenient to the interviewee. If you don’t already know the person, make sure you tell them how you got their name. Explain the purpose of the project and why you want to interview him or her. Explain what will happen to the recordings as well as any photographs you might take and how and why you will be asking them to sign a release form [see “Ethics” section below]. Tell him or her how much time you think it will take. Encourage him or her to think about having some items—a scrapbook, photograph, or favorite memento—that he or she thinks is important to the particular topic readily available.

What questions should I ask?

In most cases, people will not tell you what you want to know unless you ask the right questions, and, the questions you ask will depend on what you want to find out. Most good interviewers prepare for an interview by first making a list of the topics they want to know about, then preparing questions that will effectively elicit responses containing information about those topics. You might ask others who know the person or the topic for questions they would like to have you ask in the interview. You might even ask the interviewee what questions they would like to be asked. Once you have your questions outlined, write them down in an order that seems logical. It is often advisable to group together like questions. Always, always be prepared to ask good follow-up questions or be prepared to ask questions not identified in advance.

Questions should be phrased so they are open-ended; in other words so they will not require just a yes or no answer. Using phrases such as “tell me about” or “explain to me” are good prompters. Avoid complicated, multi-part questions. Maintain neutrality: don’t ask leading questions (those that indicate to your interviewee how you want her/him to respond.)

Ethics and Collecting Oral Interviews

As an interviewer you are responsible to those you interview and you need to respect the privacy, dignity, and physical, psychological, and social welfare of the interviewee. There should be no exploitation of individual informants for personal gain. When there is a conflict of interest, the interviewee’s interests must come first. If somebody does not want all or a portion of his/her interview recorded, do not record it.

Participation in an oral history project must be voluntary Never secretly interview; always get consent and written permission. Interviewees should also be told in advance about the project and what will be the anticipated uses of the recordings. You are morally and legally obligated to do whatever you promise to do with the recordings.

Oral history interviews are subject to U.S. copyright law (1978) as well as libel and slander laws. Under copyright law, your interviewee legally owns his/her recorded stories and photographs taken of him/her. For public use of recordings/transcripts, both the interviewee and the interviewer must give written permission. Standardized release forms are useful. You may adapt release forms from other projects or consult a lawyer and create your own form. [The latter may be advisable if your project has any sensitive aspects.] Most universities and research institutions in the United States require that release forms be reviewed and approved by committees overseeing research projects involving human subjects. Researchers should check with their institutions for information about procedures for gaining approval.

There are two schools of thought about when to have the interviewee sign the release form. One school recommends signing after the recording “event” occurs since, before that, there is nothing to donate. Once the interview is completed, the interviewer knows what is on the recording and will agree to its release. Others recommend that a general release should be signed before an interview series begins, and restrictions may be added by supplemental agreement. In either case, written consent must be given otherwise the use of the recordings are limited. Two copies of the release should be made: one for the interviewee and one for your files.  You can discuss the consent form as a part of your recorded interview so that consent also appears in audio/oral form, but you must have the written form.

Many professional organizations recommend that the interviewer prepare a “Code of Ethics” statement that he/she sign and give to the interviewee. This statement serves as a reminder to both that rights and principles of conduct will be upheld. A good model for these statements can be found on these Web sites:

Citation for Article


MacDowell, M. (2012). Project planning and management. In D. Boyd, S. Cohen, B. Rakerd, & D. Rehberger (Eds.), Oral history in the digital age. Institute of Library and Museum Services. Retrieved from


MacDowell, Marsha. “Project Planning and Management,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, edited by Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2012,
This is a production of the Oral History in the Digital Age Project ( sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).  Please consult for information on rights, licensing, and citation. 

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