I have been providing tailored training courses for a wide variety of community groups for many years on behalf of the Oral History Society. I always say that my training is based on the mistakes I’ve made in more than 40 years of collecting people’s stories. And I still make mistakes after all these years. (To discover just how true this statement is, the interviews I did for the National Forest, are available in full in the East Midlands Oral History Archive!)

Yet if I’d waited until I thought I was a perfect interviewer I’d still be waiting and wouldn’t have captured more than 1,000 hours of fascinating first-hand memories, some of them going back into the 19th century.

In terms of audio and video recording, the equipment that is available at a reasonable price enables even the in-experienced person the ability to easily capture recordings of the highest quality. It is important that whether it is an audio recorder or video camera you are using, it should have a separate microphone and headphone socket.

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The microphone socket will enable you to attach an independent mic that can be placed about 20-30cm away from your interviewee’s mouth to get and excellent recording.

The headphone socket will enable you to monitor the recording as it is made. Some oral historian colleagues feel it impedes the intimacy of the interviewer/interviewee relationship. I advocate it because there’s a lot that can go wrong during a recording, something that you would not discover normally until listening back to the recording later.

  • Batteries can fail
  • A tie clip microphone pinned to a jumper can slip and rub against the fabric causing interference.
  • Equally an interviewee’s long hair, scarf or jewellery can interfere too.
  • A mobile phone (even on silence) can cause interference.
  • A recording device attached to the mains can suffer earth hum – likewise flourescent lights can cause interference.

Quality is important for three reasons 

  • Firstly you are collecting important historic artefacts. Your interviewee’s story will probably not be recorded by anyone else so, for the sake of generations to come visiting the archives to listen to that recording, you should try to do it as well as you can.
  • Secondly, if your original source material is of a good quality you can share it in so many more ways. A poorly recorded interview can be transcribed for a book or an exhibition but can’t be used satisfactorily for a radio or video programme or a website clip. Some of the clips you’ll hear on this website more than 30 years ago. Because I used a microphone that was about a foot away from the interviewee’s mouth and recorded on to a half decent cassette player you can enjoy those recordings today. Unfortunately the opportunity to go back and re-record them has long since passed.
  • Thirdly you owe it to the person who’s giving you their time to tell you their story to record it to the highest quality you can to give proper value and respect to their contribution.

    There is further information about recording in audio and video