Oral History Interviewing

See below for transcription and deposit in the AIP Niels Bohr Library & Archives


Note that interviews use "human subjects" and you may need to work with your institution's Institutional Review Board. IRBs are designed mainly to address medical experiments and the like, and at many institutions the process can be skipped or streamlined by pointing out the different nature of scholarly interviews; see the OHA's IRB discussion.

Considerations when interviewing scientists

  • The interview is best conducted by a historian, or failing that, by a younger scientist. If done by a familiar colleague, too much is already known in common and often does not end up on the tape.
  • The second decision is whom to interview: not everyone can be gotten to, and the first choice should be people who have good memories, are willing to talk frankly, but are not gossipy. The oldest people are not necessarily the best choices. Given a genuinely curious interviewer and a frank interviewee, the interview will succeed.
  • A normal interview session will last two or three hours. Often that is enough to get down the main facts you are interested in, especially if you are focusing on a particular part of a person's career. But some people have been especially important (or are typical scientists but especially good interviewees), and you want to know all about them: their family background, how they became interested in science, how they were trained, how they made their main discoveries, how they interacted with other individual scientists and groups, how they got funds and equipment for their work, what they did to advise the government and to work with industry and the military, and (if they will talk about it) intelligence organs. Such an interview may take a number of sessions. Two per day is usually the most that anyone can handle, and with an older person you should often stick to one.
  • To get good information, the interviewer must have good questions. General and imprecise questions often get vague and incomplete answers. The interviewer must get a copy of the person's curriculum vitae and bibliography and look over the most important published papers. A good rule is that it takes two hours of research to prepare for each hour of interview. There is much more one could say about asking questions, but preparation is always the key.
  • When discussing extremely technical matters, as is common with interviews of physicists, it does not hurt to ask for further explanation into the importance of any given discovery, idea, equation, or other technical aspect. These sorts of evaluations can be very useful in retrospect, and are often missed either because the interviewer does not want to get into technical details, or because the interviewee finds the relevance obvious.

When you interview a significant person it is always a responsibility of the historian to inquire whether the person has made provision for preserving historically important papers in an appropriate archives. If not, the Center for History of Physics is always glad to give advice, and see also our advice on preservation. If the papers are already committed to an archives, please inform us so that we can record the information in our online International Catalog of Sources.

Technical advice

Audio recording

Today, high-quality digital recorders can be acquired very cheaply and are recommended over tape-based models. Always record the audio at the highest settings possible on your recorder (usually a sampling rate of 48 kHz, and a bitrate 192 kbps for compressed file formats). When possible, try to use recorders that create files in “open” file formats, such as WAV files, as opposed to proprietary formats, such as MP3 or WMA. If your recorder does not save in WAV files, you can usually find conversion tools on the Internet to convert the files into WAV; this is a good idea in part because one can always convert a WAV file into whatever other formats may become popular or important in the decades to come, whereas this is less obvious especially with extremely “closed” formats like WMA. (“Open” and “closed” in this context refer to whether the specifications for the format are public, and whether the computer algorithms used to produce them are proprietary or not.)

Video recording

Video recording of an interview entails additional costs, might inhibit the person interviewed, and adds only a little to the historical record. Also, nobody at present can guarantee that video recordings can be preserved in a usable form over the long term at reasonable cost. We therefore do not recommend video recording. But we accept such recordings for our archives and we may permanently preserve at least the voice track. Digital video is recommended over VHS, if you have the option. If you are sending a copy of the interview to the Center for History of Physics, please burn it onto a CD-R or DVD-R disc.

Transcription and editing

An important choice is whether or not to transcribe, and therefore to edit, to send the products to the interviewees for them to edit, and then to retype. Unless it can be done in-house (by, say, the scientist's secretary or an assistant), this process adds a cost of perhaps $200 per hour of interview plus considerable pains, but the result is many, many times more likely to be used by a future historian. If transcription is expected, please jot down for the transcriber, during the interview, a running list of names and technical terms as they come up; at the end of the interview ask for spellings you don't know.

The Center for History of Physics will consider loaning audio recording equipment to scholars wishing to conduct oral history interviews of physicists, astronomers, geophysicists, etc.

Transcription and deposit at The AIP Niels Bohr Library & Archives

The AIP Center for History of Physics is willing to transcribe for free a few interviews of prominent physicists (or geophysicists etc.), if a good-faith effort will be made to secure permission to deposit a copy in the AIP's Niels Bohr Library & Archives for the use of future scholars. That still leaves a lot of editing work for the interviewer; you must be willing to devote two or three hours per hour of interview. In any case we will be glad to reimburse you for expenses such as mailing, copying, and purchase of tape cassettes. Do not send us the only copy of a recording or transcript (unless by registered mail) but make yourself a copy, at our expense, as a backup.

Whether or not there is a transcript, we cannot accept an interview for our collection unless you provide an abstract of a few sentences. Without this it is unlikely that other scholars will ever find and use the tape. If possible make a running table of contents (about one phrase per minute of tape, not using the tape machine's counter, which differs from one machine to the next). Secondly, we must have a firm agreement as to the conditions under which the interview may be deposited and made available to scholars. This can be simply recorded on the tape at the end of the interview, although a written form is better.

If you decide to ask us to transcribe (and the decision can be made after the interview is done) we can send you more information on the editing process. In brief: after preparing a rough transcript, we would send you a copy and ask you to check it against the audio and edit for accuracy and clarity. You can easily do the running table of contents at that time; while not required, it is very helpful to those who will use the interview. The edited transcript then goes on to the person interviewed for any corrections or additions; this is usually the best time to send a written permission form as well. On receipt of the corrected transcript from the person interviewed, we will retype it and do other work such as indexing.

As noted above, the most important part of interviewing is not the interview. It is the opportunity to make sure that files and other records are preserved: correspondence, memoranda, notebooks, etc. Anyone prominent enough to merit an interview may have some materials that ought to be deposited in an appropriate repository, which usually would be an archives at the institution where the work was done. No interview can be considered completed until arrangements have been made to preserve this documentary record for posterity. The AIP Center for History of Physics is glad to provide advice and assistance in locating an appropriate repository and in making arrangements to deposit papers there, and recording the location in our International Catalog of Sources.

For reimbursement of travel and other expenses, scholars may request a grant-in-aid of up to $2,500 from the Center.

For more information about oral history interviews, contact the Center for History of Physics at chp [at] aip [dot] org.