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.
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.
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.
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:
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
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.
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.
Options for Secure Remote Signing
Adobe Acrobat (free version or Pro paid version)
Docusign (free trial or paid version starts at $10/mo for 5 signatures/mo)
There are more options for e-signing services listed in the Oral History Association's Remote Interviewing Resources guide.
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.
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.
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.
For more information on developing an inclusive online oral history practice, please review the following:
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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)
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.
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.