How to Do Oral History Projects
Oral history is the spoken reminiscences of a person with recollections and stories of past events. Oral history can be a project in itself or a means of gathering information for another activity. Either way, it can be very satisfying and a wonderful way to connect youth to the community and your community to the larger themes of American history.
Oral histories, like all primary sources, are the raw material of historical scholarship, and working with any primary source can be very exciting, especially for young people. Recording oral history has an element of detective work, as the interviewer hears the subject's story unfold and tries to understand what happened. And through oral history, young people can get a firsthand account of the impact of events on people and communities, not simply a description of the events.
Oral histories are only as accurate as human memory and individual perspective. To ensure balance, the amateur historian should make sure he or she interviews more than one source and should also verify any significant historical facts.
The first step in conducting an oral history is locating subjects for interviews. You can start with people you know whose families have lived in the community for generations. You can also ask your local librarian or historical society to suggest individuals who have some personal experience with the subject you are studying. Community churches or synagogues often have records going back several generations about people's lives and may be a good place to find someone to interview. Researching genealogical records in your town hall may yield potential interviewees. Or if your topic of interest is connected to specific sites (for example, if you are researching stops on the Underground Railroad), you can talk to the current or past owners of the houses or buildings who may know relevant stories, or you can research past owners through your town hall and follow up with those families.
You can also advertise for interview subjects through your local newspaper or the newsletter of your local historical society. This method is used by many filmmakers to identify potential interviewees for films on social history.
Preparation and practice are very important for effective interviews. Suggest that young people practice interviewing each other and family members until they feel comfortable asking questions. Interviewers need to put their subjects at ease in order to develop a trusting, open relationship. One way to do this is to make sure you keep an open mind and are nonjudgmental about different viewpoints and lifestyles.
Interviewers also need to be good listeners, so that they can sense when the conversation has taken an interesting turn, and deviate from their prepared list of questions if need be. If you are not willing to adapt your list of questions, the interview may feel too formal and the subject may be less inclined to speak freely. Most importantly, interviewers should find out as much as possible about the subject's background before the interview, so they can formulate appropriate questions.
If you already know the subject or someone else has already broached the idea, you can call the subject to arrange an interview. If you don't know the person, you might want to write an introductory letter explaining what you are doing and why you think the subject's experiences are important. Follow up with a telephone call to schedule the interview. In the meantime, collect as much information on the person and the period as possible. Using this research, prepare a list of questions you want to ask. Make sure the questions are open-ended and require more than a yes or no answer. And unless you are adept with shorthand, or the subject requests not to be recorded, use a tape recorder to ensure the final product is accurate.
After your interview, make sure you send a follow-up letter to thank your subject for participating. Interviews are tiring and time-consuming for the subject and so your gratitude will be appreciated. You also may want to contact your subject later to clarify details or to check what you heard from another interviewee. If the interview is contributing to your research for a larger project, you might also want to invite the subject to any public event related to your activities. Make sure you obtain permission from him or her in advance to use the interview in a publication, exhibit, Web site, etc.
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