Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Recording Memories: Workshop Prepares Volunteers to Conduct Oral Histories

“In fact, the key to understanding the past
may be in the anecdotes and stories told in a taped interview.”

That statement on the significance of oral history is from Ellen Epstein and Jane Lewit in their book Record & Remember: Tracing Your Roots Through Oral History. The authors’ words rang true to many attendees at an Oral History Methods Workshop presented by Dr. Michael W. Doyle, Associate Professor of History at Ball State, at the Alumni Center on July 20.

The workshop was sponsored by the University Libraries, in collaboration with the Center for Middletown Studies, as part of the $25,125 Library Services and Technology grant that the Libraries received from the Indiana State Library for 2006-07. The grant funds a project to create a Middletown Digital Oral History Collection in the University Libraries’ Digital Media Repository
This new digital resource will include audio and transcripts from three African-American, two Jewish, and three Catholic oral history collections.

Attendees at the workshop included volunteers from the Catholic parishes in Muncie who will be participating in the grant project, volunteers from the local Unitarian Universalist Church who will be conducting oral histories for that congregation’s 150th anniversary history, and a couple of recent Ball State graduates from northern Indiana who are preparing to work on church oral history projects in their communities. The volunteers include community members and Emerti faculty from Ball State.

Dr. Doyle has over 29 years of experience recording oral histories, first as a community-based public historian in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and later as an academic historian. He has conducted hundreds of hours of interviews over the years and also supervised 2 community oral history projects. He was trained in oral history by Dale Treleven, who was then coordinator of oral history services at the Wisconsin Historical Society. A past president of the Oral History Association, Treleven is currently director of the Oral History Program at UCLA.

Tips for Doing Oral Histories

In the workshop, Dr. Doyle covered the elements of conducting an oral history interview, including tasks performed before, during, and after the recorded interview. For the pre-interview, he advises doing extensive research, preparing a list of topics, arranging a pre-interview session to establish rapport with interviewee, and showing the interviewee a list of general topics but not specific questions to maintain spontaneity.

For anyone considering conducting an oral interview of a family member, for a project, or for any reason, here are some of the steps that Dr. Doyle outlined for the interview process:

• Start by asking an easy personal background question that will elicit an expansive answer
• Ask short questions, one at a time, and avoid yes/no questions
• Avoid interrupting interviewee
• Strive to keep yourself and your opinions out of the interview
• Encourage interviewee with constant attentiveness
• Take notes during interview, as a reminder for later questions and clarifications
• Allow for pauses
• Write down proper names in notes to clarify spelling later
• Probe! Always ask why and how, elicit opinions and feelings
• Do not challenge interviewee’s veracity
• Conclude interview with a summative wrap-up question

When the interviewing is over, be sure to permanently label the tapes or, if a digital recorder is used, save the audio file on a permanent storage medium. And don’t forget to send a thank-you note to the interviewee.

Transcription is an important step in making the oral history accessible to researchers and others. But verbatim transcription is very time consuming and therefore can be expensive. One option is a tape log that provides a time count in one column and a brief description of the interview content in another column. For the LSTA project, University Libraries personnel will be preparing verbatim transcriptions to be available with the audio.

The University Libraries are grateful to Dr. Doyle for sharing his extensive experience on conducting oral histories. Books about oral history can be found in the University Libraries and more information is available in the Archives and Special Collections Research Center.


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