How to Launch Your Own Oral History Project

Lessons learned from a story collector (creator of Narrating the Chinese Vietnamese Identity) and a step-by-step guide to preserving your most valuable stories

Getting Started: Tapping into your Inner Oral Historian

Have you ever heard a well-told story and thought: what if someone wrote that down? These stories, however vibrant, lose their sharpness in our memory. As I’ve learned, the collection of something as fleeting and malleable as memory is an incredibly difficult feat. But there’s something about memory that feels compelling and graspable, unlike history.

“Memory appeals to us partly because it projects an immediacy we feel has been lost from history,” says Kerwin Lee Klein.

What if I told you those memories are a part of history too?

The reason I started my oral history project was because of my parents and the stories they told at our kitchen table. The kitchen was our sanctuary. It’s where we broke bread and shared stories and expressed our grievances and told bad jokes. It’s also where I heard my parents’ astonishing journey of traveling from war-ridden Vietnam to the isolated refugee camps off Kuala Lumpur to the cramped one-bedroom apartment they shared with my aunt in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.

Each time they retold a story, I thought about how pressing it was to record and preserve each one. These were the type of stories I wanted to share with my children and grandchildren one day. As much as I hate to accept it—my parents aren’t going to be around forever. I want to preserve these stories and our family’s legacy.

When you ask yourself if an oral history project is right for you, I challenge you to also ask: Is preserving your family history important to you? Is there a lesser known story in your community that hasn’t been shared? What kind of stories hasn’t been told about your family and within your community?

What type of stories would you like to hear?

If you answered yes or if many stories came to mind when I asked you these questions, then you’re going to be a great oral historian. These memories aren’t going to save themselves. Let’s get started.

What is oral history?

Before we begin, it’s crucial to define what oral history encompasses. What is oral history exactly and what is its purpose? How is oral history different from storytelling?

According to Donald A. Ritchie’s Doing Oral History, oral history is defined as “meaning extracted and preserved from memory” and collected “memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews.”

Oral history is the collection of memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through record interviews that is made available in some form of publication to the general public for research, reinterpretation and verification.

There is special emphasis on the recording, processing, and producing aspects of the interview, which are believed to be the circumstance in which an interview becomes oral history.

Oral history must also be available to the public and preserve a permanent record, making it separate from storytelling (though still related). While storytelling aims to inform and influence, oral history’s main purpose is to record and preserve. Though not to say you can’t do both!

What responsibilities do I have as an oral historian?

Conducting an oral history project warrants great responsibility. Often, oral histories involve a great deal of stories from different people and communities.

Oral history, according to Shelley Trower, “develops in-depth knowledge of localities, connects the local and the oral, with relevance in global contexts.”

Telling and shaping these stories into a collective history is a source of power, so only must an oral historian do their subject’s story justice but they must also have the knowledge of the histories that have shaped the lives of the people they interview.

Before I even thought about going out to capture stories, I took an active effort to comprehend multiple histories in multiple places in hopes that it’ll help establish a connection to the people who have chosen to share their lives with me.

Research requires time. It necessitates an active form of understanding that begins with reading up and taking extensive notes. Like any great interviewer, an oral historian is a researcher and active learner. There’s always more you can learn to ready and educate yourself before engaging with your interview subjects.

Paying attention and reading up is a sign of respect to the people you choose to serve. They will notice and you will be a better oral historian if you take your time to understand the context and backstories of the people you speak with.

1. Choosing a Topic: What‘s your story?

What stories drive you?

When it comes to picking a topic for your oral history project, you can let it be personal. Allow it to help you explore the crooks and crannies of the things you’re most curious about and invested in. It will keep your momentum up. It will engage you and ask you challenging questions. Think about the questions you had growing up. What feels unresolved? What’s a story you always wanted to know more about?

When I came across my own topic, I was head-deep into a daydream when the thought came to me. I always had a curiosity for my personal family history, but I never took the effort to investigate. I encourage you to make lists of histories that interest you or make a mind-map and let your imagination flow free with ideas. Connect them. Cross out what doesn’t drive you. Circle the ones that do.

Once you’ve got some ideas down, allow yourself the time to check off these two crucial steps:

  1. Settle on a topic. What’s the question you’re trying to answer?
  2. Find an angle. Through what lens will you approach the project?

As an example, my oral history project investigated the histories, cultural backgrounds, communities, and pre- and post- migration identities of the first and second generation of Chinese Vietnamese in America. This is my topic.

Within this project, I dissected the connections between memory, history, and place. This is my angle in which I examined my topic. An angle gave my project more focus and clarity. It will help your project become stronger and centered. It will push you to dive deeper.

Donald A. Ritchie’s Doing Oral History is a terrific resource for all prospective oral historians hoping to start their own oral history projects. For all interested historians, there is an online version available for free.

2. Setting up an Oral History Project: Tools, Equipment, and Budgeting Your Project

Every project needs funding to purchase equipment, cover travel costs, and any other miscellaneous expenses that come with distributing research. Before I started to book flights, recording equipment, and secure my list of participants, I drafted an excel spreadsheet of all of my fixed and variable expenses.

The below document shows all of the fixed expenses that came with conducting my oral history project, which includes bus tickets, plane fare, conference fees, car rentals, research materials, equipment, and website maintenance. I encourage all of those interested to do the same in order to avoid possible budgeting problems further along in the project.

As for equipment and maintenance, I used a Tascam Linear PCM Recorder DR-05, which I bought on Amazon. It’s a great starter recorder that really picks up the density of the human voice and will do the job perfectly for any type of audio recorded interview. If you’re looking for a more in-depth view on equipment on the market, check out this overview by Transom on good, better, and the best field gear out there.

Besides the recorder, I also paid for website hosting and domain, since I have general knowledge of how to design and maintain my own website. Distribution of an oral history project on the web is very important in this day and age, so do not forget to include those expenses in your budgeting if creating a website is on your radar.

If you’re looking to travel for this project, consider scholarships and grants. I was able to fund this project because of two research grants I received from my university. Reach out into your networks to see what type of opportunities are out there for your project.

3. Preparing for Interviews: Research, research, research!

I enjoy the planning process. Call me a nerd, an overachiever, what have you. I’ve happily spent my early summer reading a stack of articles and books to prepare myself for my oral history project. I personally believe that understanding the process of how oral history should be conducted serves as a sign of respect for the people who have donated their time to sharing their personal histories.

In order to record history in the words of the people who lived it and inform future researchers of how those people lived and perceived events of their time, oral historians must follow particular important steps to preserving permanent records.

  1. Familiarize yourself with information available on your subject matter and the people to be interviewed. Before every interview, I reread and refamiliarized myself with the responses to refresh my memory.
  2. Send out a questionnaire to your participants pre-interview to have some helpful details about your interviewee’s community, family history, and successes. To help facilitate conversation, you can also ask interviewees to bring relevant photographs, documents and memoranda that is significant to the subject matter.

3. Test and charge your equipment before the interview. Bring extra batteries just in case. Each interview should lasts about 1–1.5 hours or so. From my own experience, the recorded interview lasted about 1.5 hours, while the whole meet-up took about 2 hours. Make sure to account for that time in your memory cards.

4. Conducting Interviews: Ask away!

To be honest, I was nervous when I conducted my first interview because I wasn’t sure if I would ask the right questions. It helps to think about how you want to frame your questions and the most important advice I got is to make them all open-ended. A two-sentence format works well.

First, state the problem in the first sentence and use the second sentence to pose a question.

As for concluding interviews, have a “home run” question in mind that would naturally wrap up the interview and allow interviewees to reflect on their lives and compare recent events with their personal history.

This can also draw conclusions about major historical events or look forward to the future. The question I decided to use was: “What are you interested in discovering about your own identity and/or your background?”

However, as I have learned in my journey so far, no amount of hypothetical situations and tips could have possibly prepared me for the swerves and unexpected turns. I always had my list of questions ready just in case, but I found that as I went along on particular interviews, I didn’t quite need them anymore.

Many people like to tell and have their stories heard. In the very beginning of my project, I was nervous about whether or not I would ask strong enough questions to elicit the consequential conclusions I was looking for. As I went on and talked to different narrators of diverse backgrounds and ages, I noticed very quickly that it wasn’t so much about the questions as it was listening to the answers.

Not having so much structure is key to not only having a great and fascinating interview but also developing a relationship with trust and confidentiality that will last beyond the initial interview.

Finally, draft and distribute a legal release form that states your interviewee’s rights and the project’s rights to own and share the contents of the interview to the public. The Vietnam Archive has a helpful example of a legal form for an oral history project.

5. Post-Interview: Logging and Transcribing your Interviews

After each interview, each name should be logged onto a master project list (important to stay organized!).

Cite the name of the interviewee, how long the interview was, the date and time it took place, and the file name of the interview on a master project list.

This information can be kept along with each interviewee’s file (the one that includes their biological information and basic contact info). This will do wonders when you’re trying to figure out how to organize your interviews and structure your story.

Processing the interview is the most time-consuming part of the project. If you decide to transcribe your interviews rather than excerpt them, keep in mind that each hour of an interview will take approximately 6–8 hours of transcription. If you decide not to transcribe, be sure to include an abstract and index.

Transcribing interviews can be a tedious task, especially if you are a student with restricted budgeting. Here are a few tips for transcribing your own interviews:

  • List the interviewee name, name of the project, and dates and locations of the interview at the top of the transcript.
  • Introduce the transcripts with a brief overview of the project and the interviewee’s life and career.
  • Ensure that your transcripts convey the cadences of speech as well as its content.
  • Indicate all sounds in brackets, i.e. [laughs].
  • Provide full names, titles, and states in brackets if not stated by the interviewee, i.e. Springfield [Massachusetts], [Senator Hillary] Clinton.
  • Allow the interviewee to review the interview and transcript to ensure all names and places are accurate and reflect what he/she intended to say.

In terms of crediting interviews, you can include an “as told to…” or “based on an oral history with..” at the start or end of the transcript.

With these guidelines in mind, an oral historian has all the tools and information needed to begin an oral history project. Of course, every project has a different process depending on the subject matter, but this overview can help frame and plan a project in a way that is organized and efficient for both the interviewer and the interviewee.

6. Lessons Learned: Go forth!

The best thing about all of this though — traveling to a different coast, meeting all these new people, and hearing all of their stories — is that it has pushed me out of my comfort zone.

Even though I come from a similar ancestral background and history as the folks I interview, our experiences cannot be more different. I am not talkative nor a particularly great conversationalist, but somehow, I have spent over six hours just talking and listening to narratives and histories of strangers I had just met.

Take this project as a chance to explore the questions that scare you, haunt you, and whisk your daydreams into the stars. The thing about interviewing someone else is that it tells you a fortune about yourself. Pay attention to the changes in conversation, its twists and its turns, and the connections you make. It will make your project better. It will make you a better oral historian and listener. Now, get out there.

Best of luck to all prospective oral historians!