Interviewing at a distance

Should we carry on interviewing during the pandemic? If so, how do we do so responsibly and effectively?

Recording oral history interviews in person during the Covid-19 pandemic: Approaching risk assessment

Version 2, 23 August 2021



This document raises questions and issues to consider when assessing whether to conduct oral history interviews in person during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is not intended as a guidance document and neither the authors, the British Library or the Oral History Society can accept liability for any consequences which may result from the use of this information for any purpose. As this is a work-in-progress document which will be revised and updated the author welcomes comments and queries.

How to use this document

This document contains two sections: a list of general questions to think about before recording an interview in person, and a checklist designed to inform a risk assessment. The checklist has three sections: preparing for the interview, during the interview, and after the interview. Each section contains a list of possible precautions to consider for an in-person interview, with space for you to record the actions you will take to mitigate the risk of infection for interviewers and interviewees. The checklist is a sample form which should be tailored and adapted to suit individual projects.

Having considered the questions and checklist in this document you may decide to produce a detailed risk assessment and/or policy documenting the decisions made by your project with respect to recording in-person interviews.

Authored by Camille Johnston, Oral History Assistant Archivist, National Life Stories at The British Library (camille.johnston[@], Mary Stewart and Charlie Morgan (British Library Oral History, London). This version 2 updates version 1 which was published on the Oral History Society website in August 2020.

Disclaimer: This guide is intended as no more than guidance based on the experience of the British Library Oral History team, with input from other members of the Oral History Society. While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information brought together here from a wide variety of sources and experience, neither the authors, the British Library or the Oral History Society can accept liability for any consequences which may result from the use of this information for any purpose. This guide will be revised and updated, and the author welcomes comments and queries.

Questions to consider before recording an interview in person

There have always been risks of interviewers and interviewees unwittingly passing on germs and infections during the interview encounter. Considering the highly infectious nature of COVID-19, particularly as those infected can be asymptomatic, more precautions may need to be considered before attempting a face-to-face interview.

Even if government guidelines are no longer mandatory, a project, interviewer and interviewee may still prefer to include some precautionary measures to minimise the risk of infection.

  • Does the interview need to be recorded now? Can it be postponed?
  • Will the project be jeopardised or run out of funding if the interview can’t take place now?
  • Can the interview be recorded remotely by phone or via the internet? Or could some interview sessions be conducted in person and the rest be recorded remotely? (See guidance on remote interviewing:
  • Is the interviewer happy to proceed and have they fully considered personal health, personal risk, caring duties, and mental wellbeing?
  • Is the interviewee happy to be interviewed in their own home/garden? Are they aware of government guidelines and have they talked this through with their close family/friends?
  • Are there any specific reports of high infection rates in the local areas of residence of either the interviewer or interviewee which might be a cause for concern?
  • Is the interviewer able to safely travel to the interviewee’s home? And if travelling by public transport have they considered what they need to do to minimise risk?
  • Will any additional people be involved in the interview scenario, such as a second interviewee or camera operator?
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