Memory Work:
A Guide for ELCA Congregational Archives and History

Oral History Interviews

The task of collecting congregational memories through the stories of its individuals is an important one. Shared memory is at the heart of all community life. This is especially the case in the church community, where our identity is tied up with a common faith heritage. One of the best methods for recording this shared memory is through the use of oral history interviews.

Congregations have "gold mines" of valuables stories in their midst in members and their memories. Oral history interviews provide a way to fill the gaps in the written record of a congregation. More importantly, however, they provide candid comments and opinions not available in any other form.

Selecting Interview Subjects

Different people will be suitable subjects for different types of interviews. Know what sort of information you are after before selecting a person. Poorly matched subject and content only create frustration for both interviewer and interviewee. If at all possible find an interviewer with general knowledge of the content and good rapport with the interview subject.

Planning the Interview Content

A well conceived oral history project often relies on several people working together towards the goal of gathering stories. It is helpful to discuss the interview content with a group of interested persons, preferably those serving on the anniversary, history or archives committee, so that the information obtained will be of the greatest general interest.

It is important to focus the interview questions around particular persons, places and events. Though occasionally an unfocused, rambling interview is interesting, most often the content suffers. For example, if you are especially interested in the events surrounding your congregations’ founding, the interview should be carefully and tactfully guided in that direction. Common sense will dictate how to do this without the interviewer controlling the entire interview. Ask questions that require some depth or reflection. Avoid asking "yes or no" questions except when clarifying a point. Quite often, it is best to focus on an important event, person, or era in that community’s history. Having received information on the focal points, one question leads to another and a lively, spirited interview will result.

It is important to remember that the interview is a planned, intentional conversation in which the interviewer seeks the interviewee’s eyewitness account of certain events. The role of the interviewer is to encourage the sharing of memories for the tape-recorded conversation. Remember that the subject of the interview is the center of the work.

Mechanics of the Interview

Often times, seemingly small details greatly affect the outcome of an interview. These include the proper physical setting and comfort, functional recording equipment and cassette tape quality. All of these factors are involved in the general "feel" of the interview and possibly in the content as well.

Physical setting and comfort

Choose a quiet, pleasant room where you are sure that you will not be disturbed. it is a good idea to post a sign on the door while the interview is in progress. Furniture should be comfortable and be able to accommodate a stationary cassette tape recorder. Generally, a sturdy table works best for holding the recorder.

Be aware of the length of the interview. It should not exceed 1 to 1 1/2 hours or both the interviewer and the subject could be quite tired. It is better to schedule an additional interview than to exhaust the interviewee and negatively affect the quality of the interview.

Functional recording equipment

Use a good quality tape recorder with a remote microphone. The microphone ought to sit stationary on the table between the interviewer and the interview subject. If a condenser microphone (built into the recorder) is used, be sure that both voices are heard clearly and cleanly on the recording. Regardless of the type of microphone used, it is important to test for volume and clarity before the interview begins. It is also a good idea to use the electrical cord with the tape recorder rather than relying on batteries. People have a tendency to discover that batteries are "dead" during the interview. Do not shut the recorder on and off when planning your next question. Periods of silence are less disruptive than the "breaks" caused by on-off sounds. The exception to this is if you are disturbed by the telephone or by someone walking in.

Cassette tape quality

Purchase medium to high-priced tapes intended for voice recording. The difference in price is worth the improved quality and the shelf life of the tape itself. Be sure that the tape is not more than 30 minutes on each side, 60 minutes total. The longer the playing time on each side, the thinner the actual tape and the more likely it is to lose the recorded sound. Some of the thinner tapes will even snap during use.

After the Interview


Even though taped recorded stories of interview subjects are clearly of great value, their helpfulness to future researchers is enhanced if they are transcribed. Transcription is the copying to paper of the recorded word. This is extremely important for the retention of the stories since audio tape will not last as long as good quality paper.

Unfortunately. transcription is often overlooked when planning and carrying out an oral history project. It can be tedious, uninspiring work that is best done by someone with good typewriting or word processing skills, since accuracy is important.

Permission of donor

When the interview is completed it is important for the interviewee to check the transcription for accuracy on details such as dates, places and names. When this is completed both the interviewer and the interviewee should sign a donation agreement to make the audio tapes and the transcription the property of the congregational archives. This includes literary a well as copyrights. An examples of such an agreement form is found on page 25.

Access to researchers

A primary reason for collecting congregational stories in the form of oral history interviews is to serve the continuing need of members to remember their heritage. This can only be done when the interviews are made available to interested people; for example, those planning the congregation’s anniversary celebration or those writing the church’s history.

Sample Oral History Donation Form

Our Savior’s Lutheran Church

Oral History Interview Donation Form

I, ________________________________, a participant in an oral history interview, hereby present to Our Savior’s Lutheran Church incidents of ownership in that narrative including copyright from this time forward. I understand that the interview becomes the property of the congregation for the purpose of collecting and conveying the important stories of this community of faith.

The audio tape(s) and transcript(s), if made, will be housed in the archives of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church under the collection and retention guidelines of the congregation’s archives and history committee.

Date: _____________________________
Donor: _____________________________
Address: __________________________________
Interviewer: ______________________

Memory Work: A Guide for ELCA Congregational Archives and History is prepared by Paul Daniels, Archivist and Curator of the Luther Seminary and ELCA Region3 Archives. ©1991, Revised 1998, 2001 and 2003. Reproduction and sharing is permitted, provided this credit is included.