How to Conduct an Oral History

Hey there, friend! Today we are talking about oral history. What is oral history? How do I do oral history? Are oral histories valid sources? These are just a few of the topics we’ll cover! 

I didn’t actually study oral history while in school, I was fortunate to land an oral history internship position the fall after I completed my master’s degree. I got to work remotely with the oral historian at a museum and learned so much. 

The book that was most helpful for me to learn the oral history process was Donald A. Ritchie’s Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide. This book was loaded with lots of information and was an easy read. So check that book out if you need a more in depth explanation! I have done my best to sum up the main points and answer a few common questions that people ask me about oral histories. So… let’s get started! 

Topics Covered:

What is oral history?

Are oral histories important?

Are oral histories valid sources?

How do I conduct an oral history interview?

What kind of equipment/apps will I need?

Is there paperwork involved?

How do I record my family history?

What is oral history?

Oral history is the passing down of stories and events through telling stories. Oral history has been around for as long as anyone can remember. It was the original way to keep the past alive for future generations. 

Oral history involves a person telling their story and they are often referred to as the narrator. The narrator can talk about their own life, an event they lived through, or something they remember happening in their lifetime. Oral histories are unique because they place so much emphasis on a single person’s lived experience. 

Are oral histories important? 

Yes. Oral histories are extremely important. Oral histories allow people to document their lived experience which adds a valuable point of view to the narrative of history. 

Oral histories can also be useful in documenting minority communities which have typically been left outside of traditional historical historic narratives. There are many amazing oral history projects across the United States which are capturing the voices of overlooked communities. These projects are crucial for telling an inclusive history that explains ALL sides of the story. 

Are oral histories valid sources?

Yes. I believe that oral histories are valid sources, but there are many other scholars out there who will say otherwise. Many people have issues with oral histories as primary sources because they argue that they’re told from only one person’s point of view. They argue that there could be subtle nuances between stories. 

I believe that oral histories are like any other source that you use for a project. The sources need to be double checked and cross-referenced. Oral histories are crucial in telling stories. 

How do I conduct an oral history interview? 

There are a few steps to collecting an oral history and doing it the correct way. 

1. First, like any other project you want to start with a central question or gap in the collections. Which communities are not included in your collection? 

2. Second, you’ll want to conduct some background research on the community or area that you want to research in. See if you can find the names of prominent people (narrators) that were active in the community and write them down (even better if you can find their contact info at this time). After doing some initial research, you can start planning your project. 

3. You’ll want to reach out to two or three people (narrators) that you found contact information for. Explain to them what you are trying to do with your project and ask them if they would be interested in taking part. If they say no, thank them for their time and move on. Hopefully, some of the people you talk to will be interested in the project. 

Next, send them your background paperwork to fill out. The legal documents for archive storing can also be in this packet. The background packet allows the narrator to tell you what they want to talk about and allows you to ask questions if needed. 

4. Set a date and time to interview your narrator. Make sure that they are comfortable – whether the interview is in their home, a museum, or other location. These interviews can also be done remotely via the phone or zoom. I will leave a list of apps that work good for this at the end of this article. 

Bonus Tip 1: Make sure that you know how to use your equipment before you try to interview a narrator. Practice with your family or friends! 

Bonus Tip 2: Make sure that the narrator does not become fatigued while you are interviewing them. If necessary, you can schedule multiple recording sessions with the same narrator. 

5. Go over the legal paperwork again on the day of the interview and make sure that the narrator is comfortable. Ask the narrator to be in a quiet place so that their audio is clear. Complete the interview and thank the narrator for their time and being willing to share their stories. 

6. Process the interviews, create indexes in a document (key-word time stamps for the interview), and input the data into the database. You can contact your local archive or museum and ask if they would like to store the original tapes in their collections. 

What kind of equipment/apps will I need? 

Oral histories can be recorded on a variety of devices. The following are all programs that I have personally used and were recommended by my mentor during my internship. 

  1. Garageband on a Mac computer collects great audio, but there are some time limits so you’ll need to take that into account. 
  2. The Voice Memos app on your phone also collects really good audio. 
  3. Rev call recorder is a great app that is free for your phone. You call someone through the app and it will say that the call is being recorded. 
  4. You can record an oral history using the Zoom or Skype apps on your computer. Just make sure to save the audio and video files separately. 

Bonus Tip: If you plan to record your narrator on video you will want to make sure that you have a tripod or something steady to sit the camera on. You can find tripods for cell phones and cameras relatively cheap online. Also, make sure that you have good lighting if you record your narrator. You can find ring lights online as well to help with the lighting situation. 

Is there paperwork involved? 

Yes, there is paperwork involved in collecting an oral history. You will need to have the narrator sign legal documents. Then you will need to fill out any papers that a museum or archive might need for storage purposes. 

How do I record my family history?

Oral history is a great way to collect your family history. You can sit down with your family members and allow them to tell you the stories that they want to pass down to the next generation. 

Personally, I have been able to sit down with my Nana and Papa and record several of their stories. This has been such a rewarding experience and now future generations of my family will be able to see and hear them tell their own stories. 

Bonus Tip: Recording family histories will most likely take multiple sessions so plan accordingly. 

For more information, you can check out the Oral History Association’s website. They have step-by-step guides on how to do oral history and where to find the paperwork. They also have a list of several repositories with significant oral history collections. 

Thank you for taking the time to learn about oral histories and how to conduct them properly. I hope that these sources will help you in your next project.

I’ll talk to ya soon! 🙂 

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