Tag Archives: oral history

Oral History: The enthusiast’s guide to getting started

One of the easiest and most enjoyable ways we can all preserve our heritage is through oral histories. Who doesn’t like to have a conversation with an interesting person? Oral histories require just a little time and some inexpensive recording equipment. And you can start right now.

Whether you’re looking to interview a family member or someone you’ve never met, there are a few rules of thumb to prepare for your journey. So take out a pad and pen. Sketching the outline for your oral history project will only take about 15 minutes if you follow these steps.

Plan your project around specific people and topics that engage you. Talking to grandpa because “somebody needs to do it” won’t result in an enjoyable experience–or useful information–for anyone involved. Genuine interest will show through and your interviewees (a.k.a. informants) will respond to it with trust and historical gems you never saw coming.

You can start by listing five people from your community that most fascinate you. These can even be people who have passed, so long as you can still talk to folks who knew them well. What period of their history most excites you?

Going with the goal of just getting grandpa’s life story won’t be enough to sustain your interest in a series of interviews over time. Write a simple one-sentence mission statement for your project. This statement will give you clarity about what you want to achieve.

For example, the mission for my college thesis was to “record the traditions and folkways specific to the mill-centered communities of north Louisiana’s piney woods.” While this was still a broad topic covering many generations of people (including some of my family) it still defined a unique time, place and group of people.

Now use your mission statement to break down the project into about five elements based on historical events (from personal to international), social viewpoints, work knowledge, etc. This will give you topics for scheduling follow-up interviews. It will also help you build a project timeline, including the all-important end date.   

Remember, you aren’t the only person making a commitment in the process of recording an oral history. The people you’re interviewing are being kind enough to take time out of their lives and reveal deeply personal information. Take out your calendar and identify a regular time each week to work on the project. Even if it’s just one hour, make sure it’s an hour you can commit to as you would an important work task. Look for times when your routines make an interview convenient for you and your informant.

With your mission, list of interviewees and schedule in hand, head to your local library or archives and begin your research. You don’t need to go in-depth here, but you need to have some general historical context about the time and place you are interested in.

The world is full of historical accounts, whether it be courthouse records, meeting minutes or news archives. While these documents shape history, they rarely capture the true context of how we as humans have shaped our civilization. An oral history project will do that for you–and the community you share it with–in a very meaningful way.

Here’s a form I put together to help plan oral history  projects. Feel free to download and begin your journey today.

Oral History Project Planning Form by jkguin on Scribd

Crowdsourcing Historical Memory with TellHistory

I’m thrilled today to introduce a project that combines my biggest interests–oral storytelling and cultural heritage outreach through crowdsourcing. It’s appropriately called Tell History.

And it was developed by Alex Whitcomb and Sarah Hayes. They’re crowdsourcing video-based memories that they tie to themes, timelines and maps. We all have a friend or relative who has a fascinating story to tell. TellHistory.com can help you help them to share that story in historical context. It’s also an inspiring story about how you can take your passion, and evolve it into a platform for the greater good. The interview starts with Alex and Sarah describing their own bit of history in the development of this project….

Crowdsourcing Historical Memory Topics

  1. What has the response been like?
  2. I know from personal experience that it can be very difficult to build engagement in digital projects. How have you gotten so many folks to contribute videos to the project?
  3. Tell me a little about how Tell History works …
  4. I think it’s interesting that you use a Theme of the Week to focus your contributions. How do you identify those?
  5. What kind of audiences are contributing to Tell History, and what kind of stories are capturing your attention? 
  6. You’ve made it very easy for folks contribute to Tell History. Describe that process …
  7. How have you been using social media to support the growth of Tell History?
  8. What kind of stories and themes are you focusing on for the future?
  9. Describe what your “big picture” goal is for Tell History …
  10. A project of this scope only happens because of people who believe in you and what you’re trying to achieve. Are there any folks who have contributed to the site that you’d like to give a shout-out to?
  11. How do folks connect with you online?

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Interested in heritage podcasting? Here are resources I use that can help get you started

Devices like the Edirol R-09HR, the Snowball USB mic, the Zoom H2 and the iPhone offer a wide variety of options for recording quality podcasts and oral histories for just about any budget.

Sometimes recording a podcast or oral history can be more intimidating than the interview itself. After all, the final product is a tribute to the person you are interviewing. Technology for capturing audio has become simpler and easier to use in the last few years, but sorting out which instruments produce the best results is not as obvious.

I’ve recorded more than 100 hours of interviews in the last year alone. Most of these were heritage related and shared on the web. I’ve learned a few things about recording media (mostly from trial and error) and thought I’d share a few of my recommendations for equipment that will help you record a high-quality product that is suitable to archive (Note: some of these are Amazon affiliate links).

If you have an iPhone, you potentially have pretty decent recorder already. Just download the 99 cent app called “Recorder” from iTunes and you have a device that can capture almost any conversation. Face-to-face interviews are easy, but what makes this app so special is that you can purchase minutes inexpensively to record phone calls to land lines as well. The resulting audio is mediocre, but in cases where you don’t have direct access to your interviewee or the ability to chat with them online, this is a terrific solution.

One of the most popular portable digital recorders on the market is the Zoom H2 Handy Portable Stereo Recorder. I’ve recorded many interviews with this flexible device. The H2 can be used on any standard tripod and comes with attachments that allow it to stand  up on a table for group interviews, or be used as a handheld mic for standing “reporter-style” exchanges. Its chic “old-time radio” design is  unfortunately offset by a cheap plastic casing. But it produces very good sound and is easy to use. At less than $150, it strikes the right balance between price and performance.

For $100 more, the Edirol R-09HR High-Resolution WAVE/MP3 Recorder is my personal choice for audio recorders. In fact, mine goes with me just about everywhere. It’s a tad smaller than the H2 and has a more understated casing of black with silver accents. It doesn’t have any fancy attachments and runs through batteries a bit more quickly  than the H2. So why do I prefer it? It records sound beautifully. Few other portable products come close. The better your sound, the more flexibility you have in sharing it.

Both the Edirol and the Zoom H2 use AA batteries and record to SD Flash Memory Cards. Both come with USB cords to download your recordings. The Recorder app on the iPhone will actually save recordings on the phone or online, giving you a web link to listen to the file, download it, or even share it.

If you would like to record directly to your computer, $70 will buy a pretty decent microphone that hooks into your USB port. Early on, I used the Blue Microphones Snowball USB Microphone (Brushed Aluminum), which has a cool form factor and records well enough for  most folks. I recommend these for quick voice-over work since a laptop and large microphone will likely intimidate most interviewees.

If your interviewee has a webcam, Skype is a great option for recording interviews and provides a more personal connection than a phone call. I’ve interviewed folks from Australia, Scotland, Hong Kong and Naples on Skype with excellent results. Call Recorder is the gold standard software for recording Skype conversations on a Mac. Pamela is its equivalent on the PC. Both are inexpensive downloads, and great for recording conversations with the kids and distant relatives if nothing else.

Whether you choose the  portable or direct methods of recording, you will ultimately need software to edit your files. Fortunately, some of the simplest software options are free. Audacity is an open-source program that runs on Macs and PCs. Garageband is a program that comes standard on most Macs. Each of these products let you “see” the soundwaves in your recording to edit extraneous noise and even out tones.

If you have questions about these products or others for recording your interviews, or would like to start your own heritage podcast, feel free to contact me.