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History Research Portal

Resources for research not limited to any particular course topic and tools to support history scholars.

What and Why Oral History?

What is an oral history?

In short an oral history is a recording of a speaker relating their memories and impressions of an event, a life, or family history of which they have first hand knowledge. This may be later transcribed into a text transcript in whole or part. 

It can also identify the field as defined by the Oral History Association: 

"Oral history is a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events. Oral history is both the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word, and one of the most modern, initiated with tape recorders in the 1940s and now using 21st-century digital technologies."

Early oral histories were stories, in either spoken word or song form, to pass on community and family knowledge. These were fluid and subject to alteration over time due to human memory, a desire to be dramatic, or in light of new events altering how the past was perceived. With the advent of recording equipment, the ability to better preserve evidence  in a static form became available. Now, anyone with a smart phone can become a participant in recording history. But to be a true oral historian requires preparation and compliance with ethical and legal parameters. 

Why should a historian care about oral history? 

Not every historian will find themselves interviewing people for oral histories or using them in research. But having oral histories available provides additional rich primary evidence and brings life to what can be otherwise dry facts. Memories, captured ethically and accurately, provide evidence otherwise degraded or lost with the passage of time. 

More recent technologies capture not just words but include visual content that is also valuable in preserving the human record. 

An oral history in a drawer or otherwise not processed for archival storage and retrieval is of no use to anyone. Archivists and oral historians join forces to preserve the material in usable form, provide access and must plan for long-term digital storage.

As technologies undergo rapid change and environments threaten stored media, steps must be taken to preserve to the best of the historian's ability. 

  • Transcriptions made from the recording will provide information even if other technologies grow obsolete. 
  • Transcriptions must be accurate.
  • Technology must be evaluated for continued ability to operate.
  • Recordings should be migrated to stable media and monitored for continued operability. 
  • All materials should be stored in stable climate environments with proper packaging, documentation and permissions.   

OH Preparation

There are a number of steps to take before actually sitting down to record a narrator. This is not everything so check the Oral History Association (OHA) site for a complete set of guidelines

Permissions

  • Your institution may require oversight and approval by the Institutional Review Board. The Oral History Association has come to an agreement with the national IRB that oral history does not require IRB approval, but your institution may still require you go through the process. 
  • The narrator must be advised about their rights, the intention of the interview, and future use in a written document. 
  • The narrator must sign a document acknowledged their permissions and agreement to be recorded and has the right to 'lock' or otherwise restrict access or publication for a period of time and given a copy. 

Preparation

  • Do some research to be able to formulate open-ended questions. Questions that require a yes/no answer are not what you are looking for. 
  • Be ready to follow the narrator's lead as they may relate something that you did not uncover in your research that deserves to be followed up on. 
  • Be ready to ask for clarification or spelling of an unfamiliar name or word. Your transcriber will thank you. 
  • Have a quiet and comfortable space, good lighting, and water for the narrator. They will be speaking for long stretches and that is thirsty work. 
  • Structure the time to be comfortable, over an hour becomes exhausting. The interview may be broken up into several sessions if the narrator is willing. 
  • Be sure they understand and have signed the release documentation. 

Equipment

  • The best laid plans can and will go astray. Practice with the recording equipment to understand all the parts and how they work.
  • Have a back up plan if something happens (video doesn't work, something gets dropped and broken, interviewee does not want to be filmed...)
  • A checklist to use while setting up is helpful (final steps--take the lens cap off and turn on the recorder and back up!) 
  • Check for sound to see where the optimal placement will be and allow for challenges such as soft or accented voices and background noise. 
  • Bring a back up power source and an alternative recording system to capture the voice only if you are using a video camera. (Smart phone placed in front of the camera is a good back up plan) as audio-only alternative. The sound file may be more useful for the transcriber since they will have to listen and playback a number of times. 

Settng up

  • Have some casual questions for the narrator while you are finalizing the recording preparation to put them at ease.
  • Do a sound check or give them a set of questions to review and have them read one or two out loud. 
  • Advise them you will take notes while they are speaking as they may mention something you may wish to clarify or expand on.  

After the session

  • Stay in contact with your narrator as a courtesy-send a thank you and let them know when the transcription is available. 
  • The narrator may wish to review the transcript before release of final version. That is their right. 
  • Make copies of all videos and recordings as well as your notes and permission documents. 
  • Provide the transcriber with a copy of the recording. 
  • You may need to provide a list of jargon, non-standard spellings, or acronyms to the transcriber. 
  • Be prepared to do a final clean up of the transcription yourself. 
  • Allow plenty of time for transcription. Rule of thumb is four hours of transcription work for each hour of recording. 

OH Resources

Links to various organizations, tools, and forms for oral history creation and recording. 

How-to guides for oral history

Tools (A number of software apps offer limited closed caption transcription functions)

Forms (models) for oral history

Organizations (there can also be interest groups within archival organizations such as Society of American Archivists and Society of California Archivists

Oral History Association 

Southwest Oral History Association serves Arizona, Southern California, Nevada, New Mexico and nearby areas.

International Oral History Association (links to a large number of oral history organizations around the world)