Oral history standards and guidelines

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Oral history is a primary source material obtained by recording the spoken word of persons thought to have previously unavailable information that is worth preserving (Starr 1996). Oral historians seek to capture and preserve first hand information of life stories or events that would otherwise be lost. Defining history often depends in large part on the use of memoirs and autobiographies, on records of individual recollections of past events. Despite the difficulty in assessing the accuracy of information obtained from various data sources, the written word is given greater credence than oral accounts in academic circles. Oral history is often treated as hearsay with little to no legal standing (see Echo-Hawk 1997). Oral history is only now being integrated within the discipline of archaeology.

Valuable information on a particular area/site/feature can often only be obtained through the use of oral history interviews. The use of oral testimony is strongly encouraged in most research projects. Oral interviews, however, represent only one data set that should be evaluated. Other data sets include: archaeological excavation results, ethnographic and ethnohistoric documents, oral traditions, and ethnological, artifact and photographic collections. Be sure that information is collected from a variety of sources, and during interviews, from a variety of interviewees so that potential biases can be recognized.

The following information is offered as a guide to archaeologists, anthropologists or historians who wish to expand their project’s research methodology to include the collection of information through oral interviews. Oregon SHPO strongly recommends the inclusion of this research method, however, it is important that care be taken both in the interview and recording process. Information on how to conduct oral interviews and the type of recording forms that should be used for recording collected data are illustrated below. Use of these forms is not mandatory. All forms included in these guidelines are offered as examples of forms that can be used to document the interview process and record data from completed interviews. The oral interview process outlined remains the same whether a single interview is incorporated within a project’s methodology or the project consists only of collected oral history data.

The most important step in the incorporation of any oral history data is the reason for its inclusion. What type of information do you wish to obtain and for what purpose? All participants of a project must understand the primary goal or objective of your project and believe it to be both achievable and worthwhile. This selected goal is essential, especially if future work and funding will hinge on the quality of the final product. You must keep in mind that one hundred years from now the oral histories you compile will have a value far beyond what they have today. Important topics to consider when considering adding oral history data include place name data and personal life histories, in addition to personal memories of events associated with a particular locale.

Place Names

Oral tradition, in the form of stories, songs, and place names, was the primary method for the dissemination of knowledge and instruction, from generation to generation, in societies that did not rely on written language. The identification of area place names known within the area you are attempting to focus on can often yield valuable information on any area’s past use that might not otherwise be known. While it is true that the nature of place names differ greatly depending on the culture assigning a name, all names can tell us much regarding the landform or place being named, the people doing the naming, and/or events tied to a general locale. Place names often convey diverse information on a variety of traditional features of a people. This information is especially important in an area where historical records are sparse or populations were decimated by disease and/or displaced through forced relocation. The primary information conveyed in place names often deals with the occupation of the land and the delineation of band or language territory. Names also describe resource use, population centers, trail systems, transportation routes, hunting strategies, food preservation techniques, beliefs, the general economy of an area, and clues to the identity of previous inhabitants. The meaning behind these names provides a glimpse of the ancient relationships with the land and the personal life experiences that perhaps have set one location off from another. Fragments of history can be reconstructed by studying when the distribution of names reflects the sharing of a territory with members of other language groups or where the absence of names hints at band extinction. Because place names tend to be consistent through time, their antiquity reflects the history and importance of particular locations. Place names serve as a representation of an area's history, a focus of culture and knowledge which was/is important for the maintenance of the physical and spiritual identity of a people. When a name is forgotten, more than a name is lost.

Personal Life Histories

Personal life histories and the collection of memories of events associated with a particular locale offer insights often not available in written records. It is important to gather as much information as possible regarding your area of research before comparing and contrasting the range of information. Often written data sources present a distinct bias, based on the original intention of the author/publishing agency. For example, early advertising along the Columbia Gorge described the lands in the Hood River, Oregon - White Salmon, Washington area as a wonderland for horticulture efforts in producing crops and fruit. Later settlement efforts failed to live up to the outlook supported by those who enticed settlers to the region and sold them their land. Biases often exist in oral histories/interviews based on the original intention of the recorder, the selection of informants, and the questions that are asked. Oral interviews should strive to collect personal insights on a topic or area that represent the memories of the interviewees, not to support a belief or conclusion of the interviewer.

Given a project’s selected goal and available funding, local resources need to be identified that will help insure the completion of the project on schedule and a final document that participants can be proud of. Resources to consider include: available equipment for recording oral interviews (i.e., tape recorders and/or video), locations for conducting interviews (i.e., interviewee’s home, Tribal office, on-site), transportation for interviewees and staff, identification of any existing oral history tapes or transcripts and their location, knowledge of existing historic documentation, and the consent of all participants. Each of these areas must be considered and options selected to match the project budget and timeline.
Recording devices should be used whenever the interviewee will permit. The choice of tape recording devices or video equipment should be decided upon early in your project. All interviews ideally should be transcribed into English soon after the completion of the interview. This process is the most time consuming and tends to demand the largest portions of available funding. It has been estimated that it will take approximately 8-10 hours to transcribe every one-hour of tape (Hubbard et al. 1984; Davis et al. 1977). This is why it is important to first prioritize the interviews and make sure that the interviewer has prepared a set of questions prior to the interview that they can use to guide the interview process.
Location for each interview should be based on interviewee preference, availability, and desired result. Initial interviews should be held in the interviewee's home or a central location that will provide a quiet and comfortable environment. After assessing the wealth of knowledge available about a given area or subject, on-site interviews might prove extremely valuable for particular interviewees. On-site interviews often elicit unexpected information on a particular site design, area use and/or history. The use of on-site interviews should be encouraged when the situation permits.
All existing oral history information should be identified and copies acquired for review. It is essential that the duplication of existing material be avoided. Duplication results, in the addition of no new information, can potentially alienate an interviewee by asking the same questions as previous researchers, and results in the drain of available funds.

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