New England Yearly Meeting

A community of Quakers and Quaker meetings across New England.

Oral History Guidelines

by K​aren Will, Committee on Aging - April 10, 2005, Updated February 2008

The Committee on Aging kicked off its Oral History Project with a workshop on that topic at the 2004 NEYM sessions. This goal of the project is broadly to honor our elderly members and to gain insights and inspiration from the experiences and wisdom of these Friends. The Committee's goal is to empower Monthly Meetings and New England Friends with the tools to accomplish this end. 

We have put together a resource packet for those interested in conducting oral interviews. The Committee is seeking information from individuals and Monthly Meetings who may have already conducted such oral interviews or other forms of experience-sharing. Please contact Karen Will (227 Girard Ave. Hartford, CT 06105-2234; 860-232-5253; [email protected]) with such information or with your questions.

Almost anyone you encounter will be a good subject for an interview, even you!   The goal of this project is to listen and learn, so it should be easy to identify someone you would like to talk to.  

Setting up the Interview:

  • Call narrator to chat about the goals of this project, the importance of their experiences, our hopes for learning from them.   Remind them that there is no need to prepare or do research for this, it is just to share their thoughts and memories.
  • Call to confirm appointment before you go.       
  • Assure them that anything we produce, either taped or transcribed, will be available to them for review.   Nothing will be used without their written permission.       Express profound appreciation for their participation!
  • Schedule about a two-hour time block, at a location comfortable for the narrator.   You might take less time, but you don't want to rush the process.

Before the Interview

  • Background information – investigate as much as you can about the narrator's background, e.g. How long a member and what activities in Meeting, any particular periods of their past that you might want to focus on.  
  • Prepare a list of possible questions (we have supplied a suggested list) which you can add to based on information gathered about this narrator. It might help to star the ones you want not to miss.   These will be helpful to you in anticipating the direction of the interview, but needn't be covered completely.   You may find totally new subjects arising as you talk.
  • Assemble equipment –
    • Small tape recorder with either a built-in microphone or an external, multidirectional one that can be set up between you and the narrator. (See equipment specifications list.)
    • Batteries, including extras.  
    • Good quality voice tape, 60 minutes at most since more reduces quality and durability.   Have extras.   Be sure to label tape with name of narrator, interviewer, date and place before you start.
    • A notebook and pencil
    • Camera
  • Know your equipment well!   Be sure to test it all, including a test recording with two people

The interview

  • Arrive promptly.
  • Set up equipment in a comfortable place, preferably as for a conversation rather than a presentation.   Make sure the recorder is located to pick up both voices.   If more than one narrator, have each one introduce him/herself so you can identify the voices.
  • Have some water handy, for both of you.
  • Try to avoid places where noises will occur – open windows, playrooms, noisy pets, other activities in the house -- as they are louder on the tape than you realize while they are happening.   Be prepared to press “pause” on the recorder for phone calls or interruptions.
  • Put the narrator at ease, perhaps by chatting before the formal start.  
  • Test the recorder in that setting and play it back before starting!   Interviews have been lost by omitting this step.   Also remember to let the tape run a few seconds before starting since the first few inches don't actually record.   Watch for the red light to be sure the machine is recording.
  • Begin by stating the project name if there is one, date, place, and names of narrator and interviewer.
  • When the tape reaches the end of a side, ask the narrator to hold the thought until you turn it over.   Don't forget to wait a few seconds before starting to record on the other side.

Tips on interviewing

  • Number one:   LISTEN.   This is not a dialogue but a prompting to tell a story.  
  • Speak one at a time; don't interrupt or offer your own opinion.   It is sometimes hard not to respond as you would in a conversation, but this is an important discipline for the interviewer.   Smiling and nodding are encouraged!
  • Wait several seconds before asking another question to allow follow-up thoughts.
  • Use your notepad liberally – for spelling of names, questions triggered by a story that you don't want to interrupt, something that you disagree with but can check on later.
  • Conclude by thanking the narrator for participating, reminding them how valuable and appreciated their stories will be for knowing our Quaker community better!        

The questions

  • It is safe, comfortable and useful to first ask the easy questions such as where were you born, when, where you grew up, who was in your family, where did you go to school?
  • Use open-ended questions as much as possible:   “Why did you…?” or “Tell me about…..?” or “Let's talk about…..” rather than “Did you…..?” which implies a yes/no answer.
  • Don't use leading questions, like “Is it true that….?” or either/or questions, which may leave out the option you didn't include.
  • The two-sentence format is useful.   Explain why you are asking, “Historians are interested in…… What was your experience?”
  • Ask one question at a time, not a series or choices.


  • Any photos or items to share or to be photographed?
  • Sign a release, if appropriate.  
  • Check on questions that arose and were jotted down in your notebook.
  • Sometimes the narrator will think of something after the tape is turned off.   You can either ask to resume taping, or take notes.


  • Transferring the narrative to paper is a good idea since it makes the oral history accessible to more people, including the narrator for review.   It also is easy to store and may be more durable in this form.   Extracts, quotes and anecdotes are easier to extract from a written document that can be cataloged.  
  • The disadvantage of transcribing is that it is time-consuming.   You can count on about 4-6 hours of transcribing time for each hour of interview, plus final editing.
  • The process involves either hiring a transcriber, or using a transcribing machine yourself.   This is like a tape-recorder with earphones, speed control and foot-pedal operation to allow easy start/stop, reverse and fast forward.   It will cost about $200 if you want to own one.

Tips:   Interviews should be edited as little as possible in the first draft.   Word choice, speech patterns, idioms are important parts of the presentation.   You may find that on review the narrator will edit these, but it is a good idea to include them at first.   Include interjections that add to the meaning, such as laughter, hesitations, asides;   these can be mentioned in parentheses.

Final word

 This project can be most successful if both you and the narrator enjoy it!


Without an effort to force parallel structure and a common style, the Committee on Aging has added the two sections below to the basic Oral History project; these two, approved by the committee, are the contributions of different authors. One on more specifically Quaker oriented questions for the session originated with Marcia Mason of Burlington MM, the other on digital recording and distribution as audio files of the session originated with Sandy Isaacs of Monadnock MM.

Interview Questions

Questions are in related sets. Keep in mind that the flow of the interview is more important than answering a given number of questions.

Spiritual Journey of ______________________________ as of __________________        

Let's talk about your childhood.

  • What are some of your earliest memories?
  • Does your first name or family name have special meaning?
  • What beliefs or ideals do you think your parents tried to teach you?
  • Growing up, what goals did you have as a young person and what goals, if any, did your family have for you?

Let's talk about your adult years.

  • What are some memorable experience that have influenced who you are today?
  • How has gender affected your life experience?
  • What relationships have been significant to you?
  • What events in your life seem important to you today?   Have they influenced you?
  • What places in your life have been important?  
  • What do you feel proud of in your life?
  • What have been some major accomplishments in your life?
  • What do you think your gifts are, whether recognized or not?  
  • What are your values?
  • What activities do you enjoy most?   Have they changed over the years?   How?
  • What do you do for your own personal pleasure?

Let's talk about your spiritual life and how it has influenced your life.

  • How long have you been a Quaker?
  • How did you become a Quaker?
  • How has our Quaker religion changed in the time you have been a member of your monthly meeting: - within your meeting?   - within NEYM? - nationally or worldwide?
  • What has kept you a Quaker?
  • Has there been a time when you wondered whether this was the best religion for you?
  • Do you think Friends have an influence: in your community?  - in the nation?  - the world?   What influence do we have?    Why?    Should we have more?    -could we?
  • Is there a Friends' testimony that has particularly challenged you?
  • Can you tell me about it?
  • Is there a Friends' testimony that has particularly challenged you?   Which one and why?
  • How has your spirituality influenced your actions?
  • How would you like to be remembered as a Friend?
  • What helps you attain peace of spirit?

Your Questions





  • What advice/ or Truth from your own life experience would you like to pass on to others?
  • What advice/ or Truth from your own life experience would you like to pass on to others?
  • Are there any thoughts you'd like to add?
  • Thank you for sharing these memories with me.   I have learned much from you.

contributed by Marcia Mason and Karen Will  May 2005

Digital Recording & Distribution of Oral Histories

The recording and transcribing equipment for making oral history is, like so much of electronics, changing at a rapid rate.  High end professional equipment features are migrating to the consumer mass market devices, equipment is getting smaller, and analog recording on tape and discs is moving towards digital tape, disc, and solid state memory cards.   At the same time the jacks, plugs, cables, and digital recording formats vary widely with the result that connecting microphones to recorders and recorders to computers or transcribers becomes a challenge.  First, see if you can borrow from a library, oral history project or a professional some equipment to get the feel of it and practice with equipment known to work.  Second, if you buy anything you haven't used before with your other equipment, be sure to get return privileges.

A very comprehensive and balanced review of the different kinds of equipment with pros and cons and subjective comments on various products within each type is at the Vermont FolkLife Centre site.  This site, which appears to be updated several times a year, also contains notes and basic explanations on the various plugs and connecting technologies on each model and the latest interfacing work-arounds.  Vermont FolkLife Centre   

Professional recording and radio information in perhaps exhaustive detail is on Transom which has a search facility to help you on this very large site.  It also has some basic information on technologies emerging this year such as the use of MP3, ipods, and podcasting.  Transom

There is wide agreement that the built-in microphones on consumer grade recorders are of too low a quality to be used and some jack to use an external microphone is essential.  The microphone type and recording levels needs some considerable thought.  Many sites seem to agree that the use of one or two lapel microphones in an environment without distracting noises is a good solution.  A Radio Shack Y connector can be used to feed two mikes into one jack.  For oral history voice recordings in digital format, monaural recordings can provide higher quality than stereo for a given bandwidth as measured by recording time or disc space.  There's a very wide variety of technical detail levels on many sites.  Use a search engine with the terms "oral history" and "microphones" to find the right level of detail.

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