Oral history refers to the recording of information through interviews with people having firsthand knowledge of past events.
It might be said that we have an almost instinctive desire to pass on our knowledge to future generations and to receive the acquired wisdom of our elders. We have all had the experience of listening to someone tell an interesting story and thought, “Someone really should record this.”
Today, thanks to modern technology, recording oral history has never been easier. There are, however, still decisions to make, standard practices to follow, and good interviewing techniques to be learned.
The following guide is designed to lead you through this process in a simple, informative way.
BEGINNING WITH THE END IN MIND
There are two main types of oral histories: the personal memoir and the structured oral history interview. Personal memoirs usually focus on an individual that one knows or that is one’s relation. The goal of this type of history is to record the events of the individual’s life as a kind of family record. The structured oral history interview, on the other hand, is designed to create a public record of historically relevant stories from an individual with the intention of archiving the interview or using it for research. Both types of oral history are valid, but each requires a somewhat different approach. Before beginning, therefore, decide what your goal is and who will eventually make use of the interview. The following questions may be of help.
- Do any of the interviewee’s stories have relevance to the community or to a larger audience; or are they something only family and friends would appreciate?
- Who in the future might be interested in these stories?
- Do any events in the interviewee’s life shed light on a historical event?
- Are the interviewee’s experiences more than mere personal anecdotes?
If the interviewee’s stories do not have relevance to the community or to some historical event, and if only family members and friends would likely be interested in the interview 10 or 15 years from now, then you should follow the steps in the guide under the heading Memoirs.
If, however, you feel that at least some aspects of the interviewee’s life are potentially valuable to a larger audience or to future historians, then proceed to the heading Structured Oral History Interview to learn how to collect, record and preserve a structured oral history document.