You’re thinking about starting an oral history project but aren’t sure how to get started. Well, you’ve come to the right place! While there are in depth resources that can help with the details, the Utah State Historical Society has provided this page to help you get started. This post examines what you should consider before getting into a project.
What Are You Hoping to Accomplish?
Before beginning an oral history project, you need to identify what it is you are trying to do. While collection for collection’s sake is not without its merits, oral history projects are most accessible when you have a question that you are trying to answer or a theme you’re trying to present. Oral histories are not generally left in a vacuum without context or analysis. Determine what and why you are doing the project. Perhaps you are trying to understand the events of a community or organization over a given period of time. Perhaps you’re trying to better understand family history. Maybe you want to preserve the experiences of Vietnam war veterans, or the experiences of Vietnamese refugees. Identifying your purpose early on will help you proceed most efficiently.
How Are You Going to Fund Your Project?
This question can be easy to answer if you’re planning on interviewing a few family members for a family history, or quite intimidating if you want to talk to dozens of retired math teachers scattered across the state. In the first example, you may be able to quite affordably conduct the interviews on your own. The second project may involve hiring staff, driving across the state, compensating people for interview, renting or purchasing expensive equipment, and hiring out transcribers. There is also the possibility of paying interviewees for their interviews. If you are working for an institution, such as a business, college, church, or the government, check and see what kind of funding is available (it also helps to have an estimate of how much funding you need!)
Utah Humanities and the Utah Division of State History team up to offer matching grants up to $2,000 to defray costs. You can see more information on that by clicking here.
Preliminary Research: What Else has been Done?
This step is especially important for research projects. It’s quite possible someone has done something comparable to what you hope to do. This is not a problem, but knowing about it will help you shape your project. It’s much easier to go in and conduct an interview about someone’s experiences during the 1970 Kent State protest and shootings if you’re already familiar with the history of the event than it is to go in blind. If someone else has also done oral histories on the project, you may be able to shape your interviews accordingly. Or, you may decide that you don’t need to or don’t want to pursue that particular project.
Decide on Equipment
The importance of proper equipment and appropriate personnel cannot be overstated. There is a world of difference between using a proper recorder with good microphones and using the default recording app on your phone. Donald Ritchie notes that even if you intend to use your phone you should invest in an external microphone (and he notes this is equally true if you intend to use video recording equipment).
You should also select equipment for the task at hand. Perhaps you don’t need video equipment, or your interviewees are not comfortable with it. You also need to consider the cost. If you are associated with a university, there is a good chance that the History, English, or Folklore department has equipment that you can rent or use. All in all, you should consider what you will use in terms of audio/video recording, as well as photography. We will delve into this a bit later.
Is This a Team Effort?
Some projects have three or more specialists at any given interview, including an interviewer, photographer, and a tech specialist to make sure recording is running smoothly. Others are done by a single person doing all three parts of the project. Perhaps you are only interviewing a few acquaintances, or you are interviewing the members of a RPG group of which you are a part and know everyone. In this case, you may very well be able to do the project on your own. If you are doing other kinds of work, such as interviewing members of the local Buddhist Sangha of which you are not a part, working with others can make or break your project. From my own experience, I can confidently say that having a member of the community you are interviewing work with you, helping you meet people, setting up interview, and being present for those interviews can greatly change the tone of the interviews, as people are often more comfortable speaking to a friend or someone with similar history than they are a complete stranger. It is likely you will need to compensate this individual for their time, so factor that into your planning of what things may cost.
Scope: Limiting Your Project
Once you’ve really considered what will go into the project, it’s helpful to set limits. Perhaps you have a decade to really immerse yourself in the community you hope to interview, with plenty of funding and time for travel, engagements, and a wide array of topics. Perhaps you’re an undergraduate with one month and a car that barely gets you around town. Limit your project according to your needs and realities. This includes what you are going to ask your interviewees, where the work will be done, and when it needs to be done by. While it is helpful to have a number of interviewees in mind, setting a specific number can add early, unnecessary stress. As the project advances, you will have a better idea of how many more interviews you may need.
How Will You Preserve Your Work?
It is possible that you might only be conducting an informal interview for yourself, but for many projects you will want to make sure your work is preserved, and possibly made available for others. If you are working with an institution, discuss repository possibilities. You’ll also want to consider transcription, as transcripts are often more accessible than the recordings. Transcription work can be extremely tedious (more on that later) so many people hire transcriptionists to do it for them. These are things to consider when planning and considering costs.
Consider Legal Aspects
This section is too complicated to deal with briefly, so I will point you to chapter two of Doing Oral History. You need to consider questions of copyright, usage of interview, what sort of forms and permissions will need to be filled out, as well as if the interview topics may be sensitive or poorly received by some audiences. If you are doing work for an institution, contact the appropriate authorities for specific guidelines. As of 2020, if you are collecting oral history under a university or other institution and intend to use them to represent a larger audience, there is a good chance you will need to go through the Institutional Review Board (IRB). Again, talk to your professor or supervisor for specific information for your project.
This post is based, in part, on Donald Ritchie’s Doing Oral History, dohistory.org’s oral history tool kit, and Randy Williams’s Project Planning Template. Information on the two guides are listed below, while the template is available elsewhere on the site.
Ritchie, Donald A. Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide. Third Edition. Oxford University Press, 2015.
Step-by-Step Guide to Oral History. Accessed 02/21/2020.