Capturing the Living Past: An Oral History Primer

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Capturing the Living Past: An Oral History Primer

The Nebraska State Historical Society's collections contain hundreds of oral history interviews, some conducted by Society staff over the years. Do you want to conduct an oral history interview yourself or participate in a larger oral history project? The following pages will give you the basic background you need and will help guide you through the steps of practicing oral history.

You can navigate forward or backward through the sections of Capturing the Living Past: An Oral History Primer. You can also click on any of its links to move to other places in the primer or to useful resources outside the Nebraska State Historical Society's Website.

The primer's contents are divided into twelve sections:

1. Introduction

2. Glossary

3. Legal and Ethical Issues: First Things First

4. Planning: The Key to Successful Oral History

5. Thoughts on Equipment and Media

6. Getting Ready to Interview: Preliminary Steps

7. Setting Up the Interview

8. Conducting the Interview: Techniques that Work

9. After the Interview: Wrapping Up the Details

10. Processing: Making Oral History Materials Accessible

11. Additional Resources

12. Appendix

This primer was written by Barbara W. Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan, based in part on their works, The Oral History Manual and The Native American Veterans Oral History Manual, a 2005 project funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. It is also derived from the authors' extensive experience in presenting oral history workshops around the country. It uses a question-and-answer format which many oral historians have adopted when developing teaching materials and other publications and Websites such as this. Capturing the Living Past; An Oral History Primer was funded by a grant from the Nebraska Humanities Council.

1. Introduction

Who should use this oral history primer?

Anyone who wants to learn the basics of planning and carrying out a single oral history interview or a larger oral history project will find this primer useful. It will help you with oral history work for your family, for a museum or archives, for a school, or for any other purpose you have in mind.

But keep in mind: This primer only scratches the surface of the information available for learning about oral history. See the resources listed in Section 11 for more information.

So what exactly IS oral history?

Oral historians define "oral history" as a process that includes these elements:

  • A planned, well-researched topic.

  • An interview based on a prepared guide or outline and recorded in a format that likely will last into the future.

  • Probing follow-up questions that seek depth and detail.

  • Standard techniques for processing the recorded interview.

  • Arrangements for making the interview and related documents available to researchers, generally by depositing them in a public repository.

  • Adherence to recognized professional ethical and legal standards.

You mean just reminiscing with Grandma about the old days isn't oral history?

Not strictly speaking, no. Neither is reading aloud from an old diary, or turning on a tape recorder at your family reunion and asking people to recall past experiences. All of those things might be interesting, but they lack the systematic, planned interview that will yield in-depth information historians and others will find useful in the future.

Besides, many repositories that collect, preserve, and catalog oral histories and make them accessible to others - like libraries and historical societies - generally will not want to add recordings to their holdings that do not meet the characteristics listed above. Recordings that don't meet those criteria may be rejected as incomplete, of limited historical value, of limited use, and difficult to preserve.

2. Glossary

Oral historians use a variety of terms to describe their work.
The following list will introduce you to some of the words and terms used frequently in the subsequent sections of this primer.

Copyright: The exclusive legal right of the creator to reproduce, publish, distribute, and sell literary, musical, and artistic works. To see how copyright relates to oral history, see Section 3.

Informant: See narrator.

Interviewee: See narrator.

Life interview: An oral history interview that focuses on one person, usually in a series of interviews. This process results in detailed documentation of the person's life experiences. In contrast, see project interview.

Narrator (also called interviewee or informant): The person being interviewed. The narrator is chosen because of his or her knowledge and ability to communicate that information.

Oral history: A primary source document created in an interview setting with a narrator for the purpose of collecting and preserving that person's firsthand information about an event, period of time or way of life and making it available to researchers. The term oral history also refers to the information collected in such an interview. Oral historians believe oral histories result from a process that must contain certain elements.

Primary source: First-hand information communicated by a witness to or a participant in an event or way of life. See also secondary source.

Project interview: An oral history interview that focuses on a specific topic. Interviews for the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project, for example, focus on one subject or one part of a narrator's life. In contrast, see life interview.

Recording abstract (also called a tape log): A list of subjects covered in the interview in the order in which they were discussed, usually done at two- to five-minute intervals and identified with a recording time count. It does not include the questions asked and does not have to be in complete sentences, but should be descriptive enough for a user to find specific information on the recording. It is more accurate to use a stopwatch to time the count than the counter on the recorder when developing a recording abstract, because calibrations on different recorders may vary greatly. See also transcript. For more information, see Section 10.

Recording equipment: The equipment used to record an interview. It may be in analog or digital format and is either audio or video. The use of broadcast-quality equipment and an external microphone are highly recommended. For a more detailed discussion, see Section 5.

Recording media: The physical materials onto which the recordings are made and kept. They may be analog or digital, magnetic or optical. For more information, see Section 5.

Release form: A document that transfers copyright in an interview to a designated owner, and may outline restrictions on use of the interview material. The form is signed by the interviewer and the narrator and by any other people whose voices are heard on the recording. This is done as soon as the interview ends, even if more interview sessions are planned. For more information, see Section 3, and for an example, see the Appendix.

Repository: A museum, archives, library, cultural center or other institution where materials of historical or cultural importance are collected, housed, preserved and made available for use.

Secondary source: A publication or other document created using various types of historical information, including primary sources.

Transcript: A word-for-word printed copy of the interview. See also recording abstract. For more information, see Section 10.

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