Looking for Resources on Oral History

When the doctors told my Grandfather in early June that they hoped to extend his life an additional two months, I immediately thought about conducting an oral history interview with him, even going so far as to get a verbal agreement from him to conduct the interview at his house once he got out of the hospital. Although I knew a lot about my Grandpa and his life experiences, there were parts of his early life that I wanted to know more about and I knew there was a lot of interest from other family members in documenting and preserving his story. My idea came too late, however, and as I outlined in my last post, we lost Grandpa on Thursday, June 12.

I really, really regret that my family and I were unable to get Grandpa’s story before he passed. We should have taken steps to get his story long before this point in time, especially after he was first diagnosed with cancer in 2012. I’m also frustrated because my knowledge of oral history is rather limited even though I’m a professional public historian. I received a little bit of training in oral history while a history graduate student at IUPUI and could probably do a decent informal oral history interview with a family member, but I don’t really have the skills to conduct a professional oral history project.

On the one hand, oral history seems to be a pretty straightforward process. I believe oral historians do a significant public service by giving a voice to those whose experiences may not get into the history books or recognized by the rest of society. Oral historians act as facilitators by empowering the people they interview with tools, context, and questions to help them recall important details of their life and tell their stories. On the other hand, oral history presents its own unique challenges when it comes to accessibility and preservation over time. As Cleveland State University history professor Mark Souther asserts, good oral history projects that engage a wide audience are easily discoverable, interactive, and reusable. Even if I had been able to conduct an oral history with my Grandfather, what equipment would I have used and how would I have preserved this document so as to encourage accessibility and interaction in the future for both family members and other interested parties? I’m afraid I don’t know.

What do you consider to be the best resources for learning more about oral history? If you know of any books, articles, webpages, or anything else that you deem relevant, please let me know in the comments below. I hope to be in a position to someday conduct oral histories of other family members and potentially engage in oral history projects in a professional capacity.



2 thoughts on “Looking for Resources on Oral History

  1. Everyone I’ve ever talked to has recommended Donald Ritchie’s “Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide.” When I was at Nevada they had a pretty substantial oral history program and my public history field director was in-charge of that. It’s now all digitzed online: https://contentdm.library.unr.edu/explore/UNOHPExplore/UNOHP-home.html

    Anyhow, she led workshops for both the public and students alike on ways to do effective oral history. Most of what I know comes from those and the Ritchie book. When I worked in archives though, StoryCorps came through our town and interviewed people. They had more professional equipment and paperwork as well as a certain type of theme they were looking for. That helped in recruiting participants. I was able to participant as well as witness several of these interview and came away with some interesting insights.

    Though I have no plans to do large scale oral history projects, I’ve found all of these different things very helpful for my own research. A large portion of my MA thesis was based on interviews I conducted with Billy Mills. The book helped me prepare and craft my own release forms and questions ahead of time so I could come away with a great interview. Even then, there are some things I would probably do differently. I think a lot of oral history methods are refined through experience and can take on a bit of a personal style. Maybe this isn’t all that different from what you did at IUPUI, but I figured I’d share my experiences.

    1. Hi, Andrew. Thanks so much for this information. I will check it out, and it sounds like you got a lot of valuable experience by working with Billy Mills for your MA. I didn’t do anything like that for my MA thesis, but I a classmate of mine conducted oral history interviews for hers.

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