Oral History: What It Is and How To Do It

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By Bruce M. Stave SUMMER 2009

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Upon receiving the National Book Award Medal in 1997 the popular oral historian Studs Terkel asked, “When the Chinese Wall was built where did the masons go for lunch? When Caesar conquered Gall, was there not even a cook in the army?…. when the Armada sank, you read that King Philip wept. Were there no other tears?” Terkel, who died last year at age 96, continued, “And that’s what I believe oral history is about. It is about those who shed those other tears, who on rare occasions of triumph laugh that other laugh.”  Oral history is about all of us—the famous and the unfamous, those of us who lead ordinary lives as well as those of us who live extraordinary lives. It is a way for generations to speak to each other, for communities to learn about their history, and for families to explore their heritage.

When the tradition of oral history in its modern sense—that is, in the form of planned, recorded interviews—emerged 60 years ago, it emphasized the history of the powerful, rich, and famous. The first modern oral historians, in keeping with the way history was practiced at the time, viewed history from the top down.  As the approach to history shifted toward emphasis on everyday life, recorded interviews proved the perfect tool.  How better to find out about the lives of those who weren’t written about in newspapers, who rarely kept diaries, and who haven’t kept files of correspondence, than to ask them to talk about their experiences? The process grew easier as recording equipment became less expensive and complicated to use. The transition from heavy reel-to-reel recorders to convenient cassettes and then to light-weight digital equipment has facilitated oral history interviewing.

The use of the recorder distinguished oral history from oral tradition, which dates to ancient times. Passing stories on from generation to generation was nothing new. But recording first-hand experience and preserving those recordings in archives at universities, museums, historical societies, or libraries was new, as is the more recent effort to develop oral history-based Web sites.

Some Connecticut Oral History Collections

In Connecticut, oral history is alive and well, and interest in it is growing as it becomes more accessible to a public increasingly receptive to its benefits.  The University of Connecticut established an Oral History Project in 1968. Although its name changed to the Center for Oral History and, more recently, to the Oral History Office (OHO), its purpose has remained consistent.  Not only has it captured UConn’s own history, it has undertaken a variety of studies such as “The Peoples of Connecticut” project, which includes interviews with many of the state’s European ethnic groups and with African Americans and Puerto Ricans. Others subjects in its diverse collection of many hundred oral histories include studies of the state’s workers and technological change, women quilters, Holocaust survivors, art associations, female political activists, tobacco workers, and American participants at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. Interview transcripts are available at the University’s Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, and more about the OHO can be found on its Web site; its most recent catalogue can be found on the Dodd Center’s Archives and Special Collections Web site. (See below for a list of oral history Web sites.)

The Greenwich Library Oral History Project, a useful model for local history, began in 1973. Since that time it has collected more than 800 interviews about that community’s history. Most of the interviews have been transcribed and indexed and can be read at the library, as can more than 130 pamphlets, booklets, and books based on the collection.

The early 1970s also witnessed the beginnings of another major oral history project in Connecticut. At Yale University, Oral History of American Music (OHAM) had its origins with the success of the Charles Ives oral history project [for more on OHAM and a related article see “Charles Ives, Connecticut’s Compelling, Confounding Composer,” Fall 2008]. Subsequently, other composers told their stories to Vivian Perlis and her assistants.  They’ve added about 1,800 audio and visual recordings to the OHAM collection.

At the end of the 1970s, the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimony began when Laurel Vlock, a television specialist and Dori Laub, a Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, wanted to test whether video could be employed effectively to document the memories of Holocaust survivors. The initial 200 videotapes were deposited at Yale in 1981. The next year the university’s Sterling Memorial Library formally established the Video Archive, which five years later was endowed by Alan M. Fortunoff. It has become a major source for Holocaust studies.

Hartford’s West Indian community was the subject of an oral history project conducted by the Connecticut Historical Society (CHS) in conjunction with the city’s West Indian Social Club and West Indian Foundation,  culminating in the exhibition “Finding a Place, Maintaining Ties” in 2003.  Another recent CHS program employed oral history to study the city’s iconic department store, G. Fox, and its renowned owner, Beatrice Fox Auerbach.

Trinity College’s Hartford Studies Project has conducted student-generated oral histories with Latino workers, about growing up during the Great Depression, and participating in Project Concern, a voluntary city-suburb school busing program in the 1960s and 1970s. The New Haven Oral History Project at Yale recorded interviews during the early years of the new century about the city’s past and was developed with the intent of improving “town-gown” relations as it endeavored to demonstrate the elite university’s respect for ordinary New Haven residents who had valuable memories to share. Other projects have been conducted in larger cities such as Bridgeport and Waterbury and in smaller communities such as Windsor, South Windsor, and Farmington. Central Connecticut State University in New Britain is home to a digitally based Veterans History Project.

An Oral History How-To

Wherever the location, whatever the topic, oral history is a process as well as a gathering of information. For young people, such as students who are assigned to participate in a project as an interviewer, it sometimes offers the first opportunity to seriously communicate with a family member or other adult about an important subject. Oral history is growing increasingly common in nursing homes as the young gather the stories of the old.  It brings generations together, placing value on and giving meaning to the lives that are being remembered and may even have therapeutic value to the elders. Many teachers have employed oral history to enliven their classes and to make history an active rather than a passive (and, unfortunately, sometimes dull) rote learning experience. Through oral history, students generate source material and learn communication skills, the importance of background research, and, if they are asked to transcribe an interview, writing and grammar skills. In such instances, the process can be as important as the information that is gathered.

While StoryCorps, heard over National Public Radio, has popularized the notion that oral history is a casual conversation between two people who know each other and speak with little or no preparation, StoryCorps is storytelling, not, strictly speaking, oral history. A true oral history project requires organization and preparation.  Here are some tips to get you started:

  1. Envision the Final Product: First determine what the desired final product is to be. Are you amassing a collection of recordings and transcripts to make available to researchers? Will your oral history serve as the basis of a book, pamphlet, article, documentary, Web site, captions for a photo exhibit, or a source for a playwright, who will craft it into a theatrical production?  Or is it for personal use, to help you compile a record of your own family, solely for family purposes?  The versatility of oral history permits it to be used to all these ends; the key  to success is to establish a good sense of  purpose and focus, and to then plan and organize for a project’s implementation.
  1. Determine the Scope: Next, determine the number of interviews you’ll need to conduct, as that will determine the resources needed to undertake a study and see it through to completion. Potential interviewees and interviewers should be identified, since all too often projects fail due to a shortage of interviewers or subjects.

Plan to record just one person per interview.  If you must interview several people at once, have each state his or her name at the beginning of the recording. Introduce the recording with the names of the interviewee and the interviewer, the project title, and the date and site of the interview. Include that information in writing on a corresponding disk or tape label.

  1. Choose Your Equipment: Invest in the best, easiest-to-use equipment that your budget can accommodate. Some oral historians favor the Marantz PMD 660 Portable Solid State Digital Recorder for audio recording. I also have had good luck with the very tiny, and less expensive, Olympus WS 100 Digital Voice Recorder that fits in your pocket; later models are available. Whatever equipment is used, interviewers must familiarize themselves with it so that precious time and opportunity is not wasted during interviews.
  1. Conduct Advance Research: Thoroughly research the subject of the interview, developing a wealth of background information, and ensuring that your interview will cover all relevant topics. Draft “question guidelines,” that is, either a list of topics to be covered or a list of open-ended questions. List as many topics or questions as possible, knowing that not every point will be covered in an interview and that no two interviews will be exactly alike.
  1. Contact Interviewees: Send potential interviewees a letter or e-mail briefly explaining the project and indicating that they will be called for an appointment for what is likely to be at most a two-hour session. (Two hours is considered an optimum time for an interview and affords enough time to accumulate a great deal of information.) The letter also should mention that the subject will have an opportunity to review the material obtained from the interview and will be asked for written permission for its use. This letter ensures that the subject has an idea of what is in store for him or her, and understands that the information gathered will not be used without permission.
  1. Choose a Location: Ideally, conduct the interview in a quiet place to avoid extraneous sounds such as street noises, air conditioners, ringing phones, or cuckoo clocks. Place the microphone closer to the interviewee than to the interviewer so that answers are clear on the recording. (I often find a dining room table a good place to set the microphone; avoid placing the recorder on a low cocktail table, which can muffle sound.)
  1. Conduct the Interview:  Conduct the interview in an informal, conversational tone, and be flexible in your questioning. Don’t interrupt the interviewee unless he or she goes wildly astray; even then, gently bring your subject back on topic. Always remember that the best interviewer is the best listener.
  2. Transcribe Your Recordings: Once the interview is completed, transcribe it and store written word and sound on your computer; immediately print it out, if possible, onto acid-free paper, which is likely to last longer than any current computer technology.  A minute of interview will yield approximately a half page of transcription.  Transcribing is a complex process in and of itself, and not everyone does it well. It is very labor intensive, often taking five hours to transcribe one hour of recording. Ask a trustworthy volunteer to help or hire a professional transcribing service. Avoid voice-recognition computer programs for now; they are not yet sophisticated enough to provide quality transcription, though they soon may be up to the job.  Once the interview is transcribed, proofread and make any necessary corrections before sending to the interviewee for review.
  3. Obtain Final Approval:  The interviewee has the right to make changes. Once he or she has reviewed the transcription and is satisfied, obtain a written agreement to assign the rights—including the right to post the recording on your Web site—to your institution. The oral historian has an ethical responsibility to inform the subject as to how his or her story will be made public.

Following these guidelines, oral historians have the opportunity to increasingly explore Connecticut’s recent history.   In so doing, we should be appreciative of, and use carefully, the vast source of memory that exists, always keeping in mind that oral history’s prime value is that it permits us to understand the past from the perspective of the present. With that understood and the limitations of memory recognized, we have a very powerful instrument to help shape the future narrative of Connecticut’s history by connecting it to what has come before.

 

Bruce M. Stave is Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History and director of the Oral History Office at the University of Connecticut, and is a principal in The Stave Group: Oral History Consultants. He lives in Coventry.

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