A student’s guide to doing oral history
A complete guide to conducting oral history projects in schools, by Michael L. Umphrey, the director of the Heritage Project, sponsored by the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and the Montana Historical Society.
by Michael L. Umphrey
An illustrated version of this article
You have important work to do. The Library of Congress and the Montana Historical Society are collecting oral histories of America’s veterans, and they want your help. You are invited to work as a partner with them to interview veterans and those who served on the home front and then to write up what you learn.
The tapes, transcripts and histories you create may be stored in the archives of the Library of Congress and the Montana Historical Society for future researchers. An archives is a collection of materials like a library, but a library usually stores published materials and an archives usually stores materials that are not published, such as letters, business records, and photographs.
Over the past nine years, the Montana Heritage Project has shown that high school students can do first-rate oral histories. Although doing oral histories well takes a lot of work, it is rewarding. If you will commit the time and effort needed, you can create historical records of permanent value.
This article can serve as an introduction to doing oral histories, and there are many more resources available that you may want to explore, including books and internet guides.
The first thing to do is to decide on a purpose for your oral history project. There are many reasons someone might want to do an oral history project. Projects come in all sizes and shapes so to plan a project, begin at the end: what do you want to end up with? What do you want to learn?
Maybe you’re doing a service project, and you want to give elders at a local retirement home a chance to tell their life stories so you can create biographies to give back to the families. If people just suffered a natural disaster, such as an earthquake or bad storm, you might want to find out how people in the past handled similar challenges. Or maybe the disaster happened years ago, and you want to create a detailed history to commemorate the anniversary of the event. You might want to gather the viewpoints of officials who organized responses, victims whose homes were flooded, emergency workers who helped at the scene, or people who were children at the time and saw things from that perspective. You could create audio tapes and transcripts for the local museum as well as articles based on the interviews for the local newspaper.
Or maybe you wonder who pushed to get the town’s library built, or how the local ambulance service got started. You might want to write a history of an organization—a gardening club or the women’s club—mixing oral history with information from documents and photographs to create a pamphlet that records the significant dates and developments and the perspectives of people involved.
Maybe you want to nominate a local building for the National Register of Historic Places and you want to find out as much as possible about how the building was used during different periods of its history. If so, you will interview people who were familiar with the life of the building during different years.
Perhaps you’re interested in women’s history, and you want to know how the lives of women in your community have changed over the decades. In that case, you will interview older women, focusing on their perceptions of social events and situations in town. You want a permanent record of their stories as well as an essay summarizing what you found out.
Or maybe people in town are arguing about whether to build a new school, and you want to investigate a similar controversy in the past to see how such things tend to unfold.
Part of living is constantly re-examining the past, looking for inspiration, guidance, illustrations, and ideas that might clarify today’s issues. History is not the past but what people say about the past. It changes constantly as people develop new questions or new ideas.
A good way to start is to ask what dilemmas the community is facing today, what stories are in danger of being lost, and what questions people disagree about most strongly. Of course, sailing directly into controversies with our notebooks and tape recorders can be risky. But the more we stick to the role of questioner and avoid the role of advocate or activist, the more likely we are to help rather than hinder. The scholar’s role is to understand and as scholars, we will be more successful with people who question what we are doing if we add their viewpoints and concerns to the record in a spirit of inclusion.
Asking the hard questions can help you to think about the things that you most need to understand. Asking questions is the heart of oral history projects. Every community has people who have unique insights into past events or aspects of culture whose voices are not yet on the historical record. Future historians will not have a chance to ask them questions. The better we can anticipate what those scholars will want to know, ask those questions, and create a record of their answers, the more important our work becomes.
For the most part, people in the future will be more interested in how people felt about events and about the details of their daily experience than they will be about dates and facts. Dates and names are often found more reliably in written records than in people’s memories. But personal memories capture best the perceptions, the nuances, and images that historians will find most important.
We often organize oral history interviews around questions about specific events. But hovering in the background are the larger questions that we ultimately want to understand. What is the purpose of life? What is a good person? What is the right relationship between individuals and community? What is beauty and why does it matter? What can we know and how can we know it?
Of course, if you are joining the Veterans History Project, some of the purpose will be decided for you. We start with an essential question, which is a big and important question that can’t be answered with a brief set of facts. The essential question that high school students across Montana will tackle this year is "How did the Vietnam War change America and Montana?" To answer this, you will need to learn something about what America was like before the war, and what happened to the country during the war, and, most important, what people who lived through it say about how it changed them.
We know that something profound happened in the sixties. It was an unsettling time. In 1968 alone, President Lyndon Johnson bowed to protestors and announced he would not run for re-election; student protestors at Columbia University shut down the campus with a sit-in; presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King were assassinated; the Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese triggered doubts that the United States was winning in Vietnam; the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was besieged by unruly mobs that led to open violence between citizens and the Chicago police force.
Of course, thousands of other things were going on as well. Apollo 7 succeeded as the first manned orbit of the earth, and Yale announced that it would begin allowing women to attend school. "Hey Jude," "Harper Valley PTA," and "Midnight Confessions" were hit songs.
Significant evidence demonstrates that beginning around 1960, several new trends emerged in America, many of which continue today. Here are a few bits of information gathered by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone: In 1960, 55 percent of Americans agreed with the statement, "Most people can be trusted." Today, fewer than 35 percent agree. In 1960, America employed about eight police officers per thousand citizens. Today, the number is nearly 15. In 1960, about 47 percent of parents of school age children belonged to a Parent Teacher Association or PTA. Today, about 13 percent do. In 1960, two Americans per thousand belonged to an environmental organization. Today, about 37 persons per thousand belong.
You can’t explore these issues without exploring yourself and thinking about what you desire and what you believe and why. To think about such things as fully and deeply as you can may be life’s greatest adventure. Nothing is more fun or more important than thinking.
People you interview will want to know what you are after, what you hope to learn, what you plan to do with the information once you get it. The better you can answer such questions, the better your interview will tend to go. You will need to tell them that you are trying to find out how they were changed as individuals by events in the sixties, to help us all understand how Montana and America changed. You will also need to tell them that the tapes and transcripts of the interview will be placed in the archives of the Library of Congress and the Montana Historical Society where future researchers can find them. You will even need to have them sign an official release so that others can use their stories.
To get an idea of how much is possible with oral history, you might want to read Studs Terkel’s book The Good War about World War II, or the more recent books Citizen Soldiers and D-Day by Stephen E. Ambrose. You’ll see how a medley of different voices, each describing a small part of the big picture, can become stunningly powerful when they are put together.
Terkel shows us what World War II looked like to an American citizen of Japanese descent living in Hawaii during Pearl Harbor, to a physician doing field surgeries during the Normandy invasion, to an ordinary soldier in the confusion of combat, to a woman working at home during the War, to an admiral facing critical decisions, to a guy making money from all the war business. Dozens of voices give testimony about what they experienced where they were. It becomes impossible to sum up their experiences in a slogan. No one person can see or understand all of what happens, and so the truth emerges in more of its complexity when many points of view are included.
Whoever you interview, be confident that his or her part of the story is important. History is not made just by famous people. It’s made by the millions of ordinary people whose lives intersect in time. Ordinary people are actors in history, and every person has some power to change the story. As you help tell your community’s stories in its own voices, you will bring to life the past in a way no outsider ever could ever accomplish. You will put real people into history who would otherwise remain invisible to the record. You will accomplish work of enduring value.
The more people you talk with about your project the better. This is especially true if part of your goal is to help the community have a conversation with itself about itself. Few things are more powerful than oral history projects for that.
If a local historical society or museum discovers that high school students are available to do interviews, they may want to get involved. Such support could make a huge difference. Local museums could provide training, background research to prepare for interviews, equipment, assistance with planning which areas to explore, and suggestions for interview subjects who might be especially valuable. They might also provide an important place to put copies of your finished project, so it will be available to other people in town now and in the future.
It’s often been said that the past is a foreign country, and it is full of surprises. Without some basic research, you won’t know which topics may be most fruitful to explore, and you won’t be a good judge of what is new and interesting information as opposed to what are commonplace observations.
Inadequate preliminary research is the most common weakness of classroom oral history projects. Professionals use a rule of thumb that it takes eight hours of research to prepare for each one-hour interview. Of course, if you interview several subjects on the same topic, most of the research you do for one will work for the others too.
Reading a couple books while making a list of possible questions will be a great help. You should be asking yourself what was on people’s minds, what they did for fun, what their work was like, and so on. You can read fiction, watch movies, listen to music from the time period, and read contemporary magazine articles. A visit to the local archives to read newspapers from the time period would be time well spent. It’s an excellent way to start t feeling at home in that time period. Everything is informative--not only the headlines but also the advertisements, the letters to the editor, and the comics.
Consider creating a time line. Especially when working on a group project where many researchers are contributing, a large time line posted on a wall can become increasingly useful as the project moves forward. You can place every event or pattern that you read or talk about into the historical context that develops.
Getting organized at the beginning will save enormous trouble later. You should start a file folder for each important topic. You will also want a file folder for each person who is interviewed. This will give you a ready place to put transcripts, correspondence with your interviewees, documents or photographs acquired from them, and permission forms. Knowledge that is not organized may not be knowledge at all—at least not for long.
A good interview subject is a person who will try honestly to answer the questions that are asked. Some "natural storytellers" that come to mind readily may turn out not to be great subjects, because they keep returning to a repertoire of "set pieces"—stories they have rehearsed over the years— rather than trying to present accurate answers to your questions.
You’ll need to get the word out that you are looking for interview subjects. Students in Townsend invited members of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars to an Appreciation Program on Veterans Day. The newspapers and television coverage helped to encourage a good turnout. At the event, students gave talks, read poems, and performed music. Each veteran was called to the front of the room and awarded a pin. A guest sign up sheet allowed students to write down the names of all veterans who were willing to be interviewed.
You will want to have more questions than you have time to ask. The questions you want to ask will depend on the purposes of your project.
Good questions are open-ended, which means they are "essay" questions rather than "yes or no," "true or false" questions. "When did you leave for Vietnam?" will either get a brief answer or will confuse the subject, as he or she tries to remember dates and times. But "Tell me about your first day in Vietnam," will tend to get you a story. You want stories.
During the interview, you might sometimes ask "yes or no" questions to clarify details so the tape is a better record for future researchers. For example, you might ask, "When you say ‘they’ do you mean your military commanders?" But when you are preparing questions, concentrate on those most likely to get the subject talking about the topics you are investigating.
You can practice interviewing friends or other members of your research team. You might use questions such as, "What do you remember about your first day of school? What is your favorite possession, how did you get it, and why is it important to you?" This will allow you to practice with the recording equipment. It also helps you learn how to get good information and how important it is to listen and think carefully during answers. Also, when you play back samples, if your recording is muffled because the microphone is too far from the subject or full of pops and booms because the microphone was laid on the table instead of placed on foam or a stand, those problems will remind you how important it is to be careful during the next interview.
After some practice, your class might participate in "fish bowl" interviews in which a guest comes to the classroom and is interviewed in front of everyone. Such guest speakers can provide basic information on topics that you are going to pursue in other interviews. For an oral history project focused on the Vietnam War, for example, a guest could talk about what life was like at home during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The fish bowl interview is a wonderful technique that should be used more—and not just for practice. Turning on a tape recorder gives people an excuse to tell their stories, and we would be a happier and wiser people if we spent more time learning to tell our stories well and listening to others.
After such interviews, you can make copies of the interview tape to transcribe in small groups, allowing each member to transcribe a portion of the interview. This is a good time to think through the issues that arise during transcriptions: how to punctuate oral speech, the importance of recording nonverbal information in brackets [laughs][sobs], and the need to have the person who did the interview decipher hard-to-understand sections of the recording.
You should use a watch to create an index of the tape, recording when topics started and when significant things were said. You will usually also want to do verbatim (every word) transcripts, preserving the phrasing of the speaker. Dialect and colloquialisms should usually be transcribed with standard spelling, to avoid making the speaker sound ignorant. Important gestures or body language should be described in brackets: [puts head down in hands] [makes boxing motions].
Begin each tape by recording who you are, who you are talking to, where you are, and the date: "This is Mike Umphrey. I’m interviewing Vietnam veteran Rick Jones in the kitchen of his house in Ronan, Montana, on December 13, 2003." Repeat this each time you turn a tape over or start a new one, but adding "part one," "part two," and so on. As soon as possible, label each tape with this same information.
With any luck at all, your subject will surprise you and you will find yourself listening to stories you didn’t expect. Follow the interviewer when they begin interesting or richly detailed stories. The secret to doing a good interview is simply attentive listening. Listening well can be learned and it pays dividends throughout life. Oral interviews provide ideal situations to learn and practice it.
Don’t be afraid of silence. Give people enough "wait time" to form their thoughts. Your job is listening—not correcting or arguing or competing. If something seems questionable to you, try to get the teller to clarify it: "Why do you think that happened? Can you say more about that?" If what your interviewee’s information contradicts the written historical record, you may want to point this out, by way of getting a fuller story: "According to the local newspaper accounts, that’s not what happened. Why is that?"
But the interview is not the place for you to argue. It’s also not the place for you to tell your stories or develop your points of view. At the end of the interview, you may want to "give back" something by sharing a story or two of your own that relates to what your subject has been talking about, but in general the less you talk the better the interview will go.
You will want to give silent reassurance as the speaker talks by nodding and using eye contact. You will also want to ask followup questions. If an interview subject tells you about an emotional episode, and then you just move on to the next question on your list, you are demonstrating to the speaker that you’re not really interested in what he or she is saying. You are also losing your chance to explore interesting issues that come up that you couldn’t have anticipated when you made your list of questions. Followup questions such as "Could you tell me more about that?" can trigger wonderful reflections.
Stay alert. What questions naturally arise as you listen? Ask those questions. The questions on your list are a guide not a script. Don’t move through them mechanically in the order they are written. Keep them as reminders of areas you want to explore.
Stop the interview before you or your subject becomes too tired. An hour is usually long enough, though some ninety minute interviews have turned out very well.
Students in Chester found a box of audio cassettes in the courthouse that had been recorded a couple of decades earlier. They were unlabeled. When students began listening to them, making indexes of who was on the tapes and what topics were discussed, one of the students was startled. "That’s my grandpa!" he finally called out. His grandfather had died before he was born, and he had never before heard his voice.
Lucky accidents happens all the time for people who begin community history projects. But don’t count on luck. Tapes that are not labeled and indexed probably won’t fall into the hands of the right researchers. They will probably disappear. At some point, someone wonders what the dusty old things are and why they’re in the way, and the tapes get tossed.
Senate historian Donald Ritchie said, "An interview becomes an oral history only when it has been recorded, processed in some way, made available in an archives, library, or other repository, or reproduced in relatively verbatim form as a publication."
First, make a duplicate of the tape (or several if you may need them) then put the original away until it is placed in an archives. Except for making a copy, you should avoid playing the tape once it’s recorded, since every playing wears the tape some. Never loan the original. Wait until you or an archives has made a duplicate and loan the duplicate. Avoid hot or humid storage.
Whenever possible, make full transcripts. This is the most time-consuming of the tasks involved with oral histories. Plan on four hours of transcribing work for each hour of tape. The transcript should be reviewed and approved by the interview subject, and this transcript, like the tape itself, should be preserved and treated as an important historic document.
Sometimes, we don’t have enough time to make full transcripts. In these cases, make an index to the tape, recording key topics and either the counter number on the tape recorder or the number of minutes and seconds from the start of the tape. This helps researchers find information about the topics they are pursuing. Audio recordings that lack any indication of what they contain are not very useful, because it takes so much time to find out whether they include helpful information.
Before transcripts are published or made available to the public, have the interview subject review them and make any needed corrections. Especially if you did not secure permissions before you began interviewing, this is a good time to get signed permissions which cover both the tape and the transcript.
Sometimes, this stage will raise interesting issues. A subject might want to change or delete information on the tape. Sometimes people want to fix bad grammar or awkward phrases. Sometimes they’ve had second thoughts and want things removed. Remember, as a basic premise, that the tape holds the subject’s story and he or she has all the rights to it.
Some grammar corrections are probably okay. But if the person wants so many changes that the transcript begins to sound like written prose rather than the spoken word, try to get him or her to understand that the character of spoken language is different from written language and that the document is more useful if it preserves that character.
You may ask a subject who wants information removed to consider writing a time limit restriction on the permission form so that the information can’t be used for ten years—or twenty or fifty—but making it ultimately available.
Tape recordings take more care than paper documents, such as periodic rewindings to keep the tapes from sticking together. From the beginning your project should have had selected a final repository, preferably a place with staff and equipment to provide long-term care for the important primary documents you’ve created, such as the Montana Historical Society or the Library of Congress.
Keep in mind that people automatically have copyrights to their interviews: the words, the tapes, the transcripts, any photographs that were taken. You cannot do anything with these materials without the subject’s permission. Also keep in mind that if you publish something untrue about another person, both you and the interview subject could be sued.
Be sure to give the interviewer credit, both verbally on the recording and written on the cassette.
Some of the best student research is family history research. When teenagers spend time interviewing parents or grandparents, all sorts of wonderful things happen: family relationships are strengthened, key historical understandings are passed along, young people’s historical consciousness is developed, older people are prompted to reflect on their own lives, and valuable voices are added to the record.
Nonetheless, it is your family’s decision whether to share its history in a public forum. Some things are sacred and are better not discussed in public. Older people in your family will be your best guide as to what can or should be shared.
All sorts of other issues also come into play: divorce, immigration status, adoption, unpleasant or illegal activities, concerns about unconventional lifestyles, and varying cultural norms. We all have skeletons in our closets.
As we get more mature, we tend to see each other’s foibles and weaknesses and mistakes in a different light that leads not to judgment but to understanding. But we’re not all there yet, and people have good reasons for wanting to keep some things private. We need to respect their desire to do so.
You should always have the option of interviewing someone other than family members if you have personal reasons for wanting to keep family matters private.
Whenever oral histories are mentioned, someone questions their reliability. After all, memory is unreliable and people have many motives for "improving upon" the past.
But the truth is that oral histories are probably as reliable or unreliable as other sources. Every source needs to be evaluated and compared with other sources. Anyone who has been involved in a public controversy and then read about it in a newspaper knows that newspaper stories are full of inaccurate statements. People who have been to controversial board meetings and then read officially prepared minutes know how far the documentary record sometimes strays from what was "really" going on.
It’s true that people giving oral histories often "doctor" the past or portray themselves in the most favorable light, but this is not unique to oral histories. A knowledgeable and skilled interviewer can probe areas that seem questionable, politely, with such questions as "What leads you to believe that? Are you aware of any evidence that supports that?"
But in the end, the person will report his or her own version of events, and the rest of us will be left thinking about what to make of it. Why should oral histories be that much different from the rest of our relationships?
Doing oral histories gives you a chance to get to know other people and to explore other lives. Nothing is more interesting than that. Creating an oral history record allows you to make real contributions to your community. The students in Ronan published a book about local veterans experiences entitled A Nation and Community Divided: Reflections on the Vietnam War. Students in Bigfork collected historic photos of their veterans, took contemporary pictures at the time of the interview, and combined these with quotations from the interviews to create multimedia presentations. A standing-room-only audience, including the veterans and family members and friends, filled a local theater to see this program.
Every town can benefit from having more of its history gathered and written. Giving the gift of scholarship is an important way you can serve others while you learn important things about the past and present.
A Guide for interview subjects that you can provide before the interview to answer questions and help the subject prepare
Here are more tools for doing oral history
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