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Oral History Research Guide: Conduct Remote Interviews

A compilation of resources on what oral history is, how to do oral history, and how to locate oral history interviews.

Why Do Remote Interviews

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the requirement to cease face-to-face interviewing for the health of both narrator and interviewer, many oral historians have adopted remote interviewing as a pathway to continue essential oral history work. This page provides information and resources on how to conduct quality oral history interviews even when we can't meet in person, and tries to answer some of the most common questions that arise from this process.

There are many reasons that in-person interviewing has been the default method for oral history practitioners, but remote interviewing has a place in oral history practice even when it is safe to resume meeting face to face. 

The information on this page was adapted from the Oral History Association's Remote Interviewing Resources guide.

Remote or In-person: Which Is Better?

There are many benefits and advantages to conducting an in-person interview, but there are times when a remote interview is the better method for the narrator, interviewer, or both. The following list of questions from the Oral History Association's Remote Interviewing Resource guide can help you decide which is the best option. The answers to each question may not clearly point in either direction, so it is important to engage in a tactful discussion with the interviewee about these questions and to use your best judgement.

  • What are the interviewee’s preferences? Do they feel it is important to conduct the interview in the present time, or would they prefer to wait?
  • What is the ultimate goal of the recorded interview? Is it solely for historical documentation, or a web-based production (e.g. podcast, vlog)? Is it for a broadcast documentary? 
  • What is the minimum quality level of the interview audio and/or video needed for your goal?
  • What are the project deadlines? Can interviews wait, or is it important to gather interviews at the present time?
  • If travel / meeting restrictions are in place and an in-person interview is possible at a later date, can the interview be postponed? 
  • Is the narrator located too far away to conduct an in-person interview in the near future? 
  • Is it possible you may have issues making a connection with and / or locating the narrator at a later date?
  • What is the health and / or mobility of the narrator? Of the interviewer? Do health, disabilities, or other concerns make an in-person interview challenging?

If the answers to the questions point towards a remote interview being the better and / or safest option, then move on to thinking about equipment and software that will support a remote interview.

Privacy and Security

Remote interviewing options rely on information being transmitted over phone lines or internet connections and present security issues not found in an in-person interview. Situations that might require the interviewer to consider elevated levels of security include:

  • Interviews that contain sensitive information.
  • Interviews with high profile individuals or people targeted for surveillance (activists, dissidents).
  • Interviews with people involved in legal proceedings.
  • Interviews that will be restricted for a period of time.
  • Any interview where the participant has concerns about how accessible the interview will be to the public.

Security Considerations

Phone recordings are likely the most secure way to conduct a remote interview, depending on how much of the connection itself is web-based.  Web-based software is more vulnerable to interruptions, rights issues, and hacking of cloud-based storage. Security questions to ask concerning your project might include

  • Can confidentiality of the interview be assured? 
  • Is the software provider routinely recording and/or retaining content? 
  • Does the software provider retain rights over what is recorded?  Both Zoom and Google retain rights.
  • Where can you store the recordings for most security (see the Oral History Association's Remote Interviewing Resources guide)? 
  • Are all users up to date with the newest versions of the software?
  • What kinds of security provisions come with the software?
  • Can you use password protection for the connection itself? 
  • Can you use encryption to transfer files? 

Health Issues

If you are discussing health issues, you need to consider the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and determine if your web-conferencing software is HIPAA compliant.  Most commonly-available web-conferencing software was not created with a consideration for security and privacy rules of HIPAA. Zoom does offer a HIPAA-compliant version that requires a twelve-month minimum subscription at $200/month. You may want to check if your institution or partnering institution has such access.

Release Forms and Signatures

Having a signed release form (and related paperwork) is essential to any interview. In-person interviewing allows for a paper copy of the release to be signed, but in a remote interviewing environment this is not feasible. Fortunately, there are many options to obtain a signed release; any particular option may work for an entire project, but you may need to customize based on what is best for each narrator. 

Physical Signature

Pros

  • Accepted as secure
  • Comfortable for most users
  • Ensures transparency of interaction
  • Does not require navigating issues with different technology capacity

Cons

  • May require an extra nudge for the narrator to complete and return the form in a timely manner

Virtual Signature

Pros

  • Good if signatures are promptly needed
  • Good if any exchange of paper/mail is problematic

Cons

  • Learning curve for users
  • Consider concerns when addressing any special requests, embargoes, etc. in a digital environment
  • Privacy concerns 
  • May require navigating issues with different technology capacity

Options for Secure Remote Signing

Adobe Acrobat (free version or Pro paid version)

  • Newer versions of Adobe Acrobat allow the narrator to digitally sign a document using the cursor or on mobile devices, a finger. The file is then saved with the digital signature, and can be emailed or printed and mailed back.
  • Narrators may not know about this functionality, so be sure to provide instructions if needed.
  • Compatible with Google Drive and Box.
  • Many organizations already have an Adobe Acrobat Pro subscription. 

Docusign (free trial or paid version starts at $10/mo for 5 signatures/mo)

  • DocuSign lets you send, sign, and access documents and is compatible with web-based platforms, as well as Android and iOS mobile devices.
  • One of the features Docusign promotes is that data it manages and organizes in documents are processed and stored in a system that complies with data protection protocols (more on security here: https://www.docusign.com/blog/is-your-esignature-safe).
  • Narrators would not need any special software to sign.
  • Has reports of being clunky for signatories in figuring out where to sign. 

There are more options for e-signing services listed in the Oral History Association's Remote Interviewing Resources guide.

File Preservation and Metadata

IMPORTANT: Always save, then back up your files as soon as you are done with the interview. Save more than one copy and save each one to a different location.

For web-based files: Download a copy to your hard drive, another to an external hard drive or jump drive, then upload a third-copy to a cloud-based file-sharing service such as Box, Google Drive, or Dropbox. This reduces the chances of the file being lost or deleted.

For files recorded on a device: Don't leave files on a digital recorder. Download immediately to your hard drive, then save copies to an external drive and to a cloud-based file-sharing service.

Archives and Special Collections requests that audio and video that is being created for donation to them be saved as uncompressed .wav or .mp4 files. Some software will automatically save a compressed version. Maintain the raw audio / video as it is and don't edit the files.

Note: Each archival repository is different and has different standards for audio / video delivery and preservation. Check with them first before you record your interview so you can provide them with the files in the format and state they expect.


File Naming Dos and Donts

In the context of oral history work, a digital file name should convey at least some minimal information to the user about the content of the file. A simple approach to file naming could incorporate things like the name of the narrator, date of the interview and kind of file–for example, smith-jane_2020-07-05_video.mp4.

  • Give each file a unique name.
  • Give each file a simple name (don't over think it). File names don't need to be complicated.
  • Don't use special characters in a file name as it needs to be machine-readable. Stick to letters and numbers and use underscores for spaces.

Metadata

Metadata is a way of describing the information you collect and store about your interviews–the who, what were and when, as well other things such as subject keywords, permissions and various other details. Keep track of these things using the tools you favor most–a spreadsheet, a word processing file, a notebook. All this information will be valuable to an archive down the road. Preserving these metadata alongside the files is the best way to ensure that the context of the interview stays with the audio / video.

Accessibility and Inclusion

Oral historians should think proactively about inclusion and mitigating barriers to access when choosing their equipment and tools. Remote interviewing can be a key item in an inclusive oral history toolkit. Understanding the accessibility features of the platforms you may use in a remote interview is work you should do before the interview process begins to better understand and meet the needs of narrators. Narrators or interviewers with hearing, speech, or visual impairments may find some platforms and modalities of interviewing more accessible than others.

Make sure you and your interviewee can access the digital tools you are using throughout the oral history process.

  • Be sure to check with your interviewee regarding any limitations in your tools--the remote interview method/platform, including release forms and interview review--that may create barriers for you and them. This should be approached as a way of activating a narrator’s expertise about their own ways of communicating and moving through the world.
  • You may ask if your narrator has limitations on how long they can look at a screen, or sit for an interview, or if you need to plan for any interpretation or translation services. 
  • Note that access needs may change over the course of the oral history process, and keep lines of communication open with regular check-ins.

For more information on developing an inclusive online oral history practice, please review the following:

Audio versus Video

Keep in mind that if you and the interviewee are donating the interview to an archive, check with that institution first to find out whether they prefer audio or video. Some institutions don't have the capacity to archive large video files, and they will likely have specific format types they prefer, such as .wav audio files instead of .mp3 audio files.

Video

One of the primary challenges with remote interviewing is the loss of rapport between narrator and interviewer that comes from interacting in a shared physical space.

Pros

  • The benefits of a video interview is added context to the interview process, including non-verbal communication and insights into overall interview engagement.

Cons

  • Both the interviewee and interviewer must have access to strong broad-band internet connections and hardware that allows for video connections.
  • The interviewee may not want to have their personal environment captured in a space destined for public access.
  • Some remote interviewing platforms only generate low-quality video files that aren't ideal for long-term preservation.

Audio

With so many connection and recording options, this can be the least stressful option for narrators without regular use of a video conferencing system or setup.

Pros

  • There are multiple platforms that allow for an audio-only recording of an oral history interview, whether connecting via landline, mobile phone, or computer/internet enabled device.
  • There are options for high-quality recording for audio files, and with higher clarity and recording quality, these can also have greater application down the road for public engagement. 

Cons

  • Without a visual connection the interviewer and narrator have to rely solely on verbal cues for engagement.
  • If a visual connection exists and only an audio file is recorded, subtleties in the visual communication may be lost to later audiences, similar to an in-person audio recorded interview. 

The option you choose should be one that both you and the narrator feel is best, and it should be approved by the archival institution that you are choosing to donate the interviews to (if you are).

Recording Equipment and Hardware Considerations

There are many digital and web-based recording options in addition to the ones listed below; however, they either produce poor audio quality, require a high level of technological know-how, or are subscription / fee based. If you want to learn more about these options, visit the Oral History Association's Remote Interviewing Resources guide.

Landline Recording

FreeConferenceCall.com

Rev Call Recorder (only records as mp3)

Mobile Phone Recording

Rev Call Recorder (only records as mp3)

External audio recorder, such as a Zoom or Marantz, plugged in via a 3.5 mm headset jack

Web-based Audio / Video Recording

Zoom (University of Montana students have access to the paid version of Zoom for free)

Skype


Hardware

When determining whether a remote interview is possible, it is critical to consider not just the operating system and access to internet connectivity, but also the hardware available to both narrator and interviewer.

Mobile devices often come with built-in hardware, like microphones and also webcams, but these often produce poor audio / video quality. If both interviewee and narrator can use external microphones and headphones, this is the best, and most simple, option for creating a quality audio recording and is highly recommended. Special consideration may include an in-person assistant for the interviewee to assist with troubleshooting and setup if possible.

Rule of Thumb: Choose the path that is the simplest to succeed for both connecting and recording over prioritizing quality considerations. 

Audio-Recorded Interviews

  • All recorded parties should ideally plan to have some sort of external microphone and headphones. The complexity of hardware setup for remote interviewing can range from very simple options, like earbuds with built in microphones, to complex options, like a high-quality USB or audio-interface microphone (similar to what you would use for in-person interviews) and external headphones.
  • Something also to consider is many externally-connected webcams also have decent built-in microphones.

Video-Recorded Interviews

  • While internal webcams for laptops and tablets are often of a good enough quality to connect to narrators remotely, if the interview is being recorded in video format, you might consider making external webcam options available to both the interviewer and narrator.
  • An additional consideration for video interviews is lighting. A simple option might be proper placement of laptop or mobile device relative to lighting sources (natural lighting is often better).
    • Avoid sitting with your back to / or the webcam pointed towards a strong light source as it will create a glare on the screen and hide your face.

University of Montana students, faculty, and staff have access to recording equipment through Campus IT and the Mansfield Library. Contact each department to find out what types of equipment is available to check out with your Griz Card.