In the oral history toolbox

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By Steven Sielaff

Throughout 2016 we’ve featured oral history #OriginStories – tales of how people from all walks of life found their way into the world of oral history and what keeps them going. Most recently, Steven Sielaff explained how oral history has enabled him to connect his love of technology and his desire to create history. Today we launch a new series we’re calling #HowToOralHistory, where we invite you to explain some small aspect of your oral history practice. Our goal is both to promote best practices and to appreciate the detailed work that goes in to producing high quality oral history – from researching and recording, to transcribing, reviewing, editing, producing, publishing, and public presentation.

To kick off our #HowToOralHistory series, we invited Steven Sielaff to come back and explain some of how he estimates the costs – both in time and money – to produce a single well researched interview.


Question: How much time should a small project budget to create a single oral history interview?

I have developed a general hourly cost schedule for use in the Baylor University Institute for Oral History, and I’ve tried to adapt it a bit for a one-person shop. I’m sure other people will have a variety of estimates depending on the composition of each oral history center and their policies regarding transcripts. Here are my results:

Calculations are in man-hours, and standardized for a one-hour interview:

  • Pre-Interview Research: 4-8 hours
  • Interview: 2-4 hours for onsite, 8 for local travel, 16 for longer
  • Audio Processing/Transcription: 15-20 hours
  • Review: 2-3 month wait
  • Post-Review Edits: 5 hours
  • Final Editing: 5 hours

Total: 30-60 hours, over 3-4 months

A few notes here:

  1. I use one hour of audio as a control – obviously if your interviews are longer it will require more time for certain tasks such as transcribing/editing etc., so you can apply a multiplier based on your average length if you’d like.
  2. The prep work and actual interview time can vary wildly depending on your topic and if you need to travel, so I provided a range there. For instance, I recently completed a long interview series I conducted in my office, so my prep involved listening to the previous interview while researching the two or three topics I planned to cover next. I usually would set aside half a day for this. If you are starting a project from scratch, obviously you will want to do more research.
  3. I typically tell people it will take five to ten hours to transcribe one hour of audio. The low end represents an experienced listener and fast typist, the high end a novice. I also built into this transcription category the time it will take for you to audit check and initially edit your work. Remember, you want to represent yourself favorably when you send any produced materials to your narrators for the first time.
  4. I included a review phase merely to point out how long we give our interviewees to correct their transcripts. Obviously you can not move forward until you receive the reviewed transcript back, so you will need to factor that into the overall consideration of what you can accomplish in a year, even though it might not directly be reflected in your own hours. For us, transcription review also serves as an additional ethical layer during processing, confirming the comfort level and willingness of the interviewee when it comes to presenting their interview to the world.
  5. The final two categories are for adding corrections and final editing, which for us means making the final product “pretty” when it comes to overall amount of content included (updated information and/or editor notations) and style of the document. We will currently place what we call draft transcripts online that do not include the “Final Editing” steps, so you may or may not be interested in including this final category in your calculation.

In short: it varies. Every interview is different, but this guide can help to budget time when planning out an oral history project.

This guide was adapted from an answer Steven Sielaff provided on H-OralHist.

We are accepting proposals for both our #OriginStories and #HowToOralHistory articles for the next few months and look forward to hearing from you. We ask that finished articles be between 500-800 words or 15-20 minutes of audio or video. These are rough guidelines, however, so we are open to negotiation in terms of media and format. We should also stress that while we welcome posts that showcase a particular project, we can’t serve as landing page for kickstarter or similar funding sites. Please direct any questions, pitches, or submissions to the social media coordinator, Andrew Shaffer, at ohreview[at]gmail[dot]com.

Image: “Measuring Tape” by Jamie, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.