What Good Oral History Is All About

IMG_0409Troy Reeves oversees what he casually calls ‘oral history activities’ at the UW-Madison Archives, which is a part of the UW-Madison Libraries. He came to Wisconsin via Idaho, where he was Idaho’s Oral Historian (employed by their state historical society). Over the past eight years he has converted the UW collection’s audio oral histories from analog to digital and been extremely proactive around the state to support and facilitate oral history projects.

Since his arrival in 2007, Troy’s expertise as an oral historian has been highly sought after. In fact, he has been involved as a consultant in so many WHC-funded grants, we wonder if he has cloned himself to get all the work done. Until recently he was the only full-time oral historian at the state or university level.

Troy believes strongly in the power, and value, of oral histories. So we asked him to share with you some of what he does when he is working with groups to get oral history projects started on solid footing.

Important Things to Know about Oral History: A Short Essay on a Big Topic

I’ve been a professional oral historian for just about 16 years.  I still remember my first public presentation, back in 1999, on the topic. But not for what I said. Rather for the first question (really two) asked of me:

“Who are you?” And “What are you doing here?”

All these years later, I realize what the real question was because I’ve been answering it ever since.

“What is Oral History?”

This is a complicated question that I’ll start to answer by describing an oral history project called ‘Campus Voices.’ The goal of ‘Campus Voices’ is to bring significant events in the University’s history to life for people today by sharing the actual voices of the people who lived them. The UW-Madison Archives has a very large collection, but it is used by a small number of researchers. I want to open the resource up to more people. I know the stories collected are powerful and figured the voices could speak for themselves if presented in a modern way.  Once the information is accessible, it is my task to let people know about its existence.

‘Campus Voices’ is a big undertaking, but the first phase has been well received. We started with stories from the 1970 Teaching Assistants Association strike. It was around the 40th anniversary of the event and we have a collection of interviews, conducted in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but they were not being widely used. Frankly, knowledge about the TAA strike, and its significance, is being lost. So, working with student staff, we created new, digital copies of the audio, along with updated metadata (another word for useful descriptions and keywords). To make the stories most useful, we also had the interviews transcribed.  Finally, we re-purposed the audio and transcripts into a variety of modern presentation formats, such as an iTunes album, a podcast, and a mini-movie, in the hopes that they would be of interest to a much more varied audience than the typical person who uses our Archives. My job now is to promote ‘Campus Voices,’ which I think I just did, right? Check it out here.

Yes, but What is oral history? I’ll side-step again by explaining the key points of what I believe constitutes good oral history. Particularly now, in the digital age, when you can easily find many web-based presentations that (mis)use the term, I feel compelled to share my perspective. Whether I’m talking to a prospective narrator (the oral history preferred term for interviewee), teaching students, or training community members interested in learning how to conduct oral histories, these points remain the same.  I’ll save my thoughts on the (mis)use of term oral history for a future post (and keep you on the edge of your seats, I imagine).

The key points of what constitutes good oral history:

  • Collection: The interviewer should start by doing his or her research on the person being interviewed and/or the topic(s) about which he or she want to know more. A good list of questions comes from this research. The interviewer should also record each oral history session using a digital audio or audio/video recording device.
  • Curation: The interviewer should make sure the digital file is preserved in some good way, ideally making sure multiple copies of the digital file exist. Also, some type of document and/or metadata should be created to help not only the interviewer to access the content but also so that other people can use the material as easily and efficiently as possible.
  • Communication: In the digital age, anyone who does an oral history interview or project should find a good way to communicate about it so it can be used in some way. Presentation could fall into traditional methods (printed publications, museum exhibit, public presentation, etc.) or modern techniques (blogpost, online exhibit, virtual presentation, etc.).

This is not just my own opinion, but I concur with other people around the country doing good work to forward the field of oral history.  In the U.S., the primary organization is The Oral History Association. Their website offers useful information, including its definition of oral history and its Best Practices and General Principles. Another resource is the Oral History in the Digital Age website, which includes short essays on myriad topics related to oral history and a section called“Ask Doug” where you can get advice about the best recorders to purchase based on your project needs.

To keep to my own Best Practices, I’ll reveal that I borrowed the key oral history points bolded above — collecting, curating, and communicating – from OHDA’s leadership. And, because I try to keep my narrators on track, I’ll corral my own thoughts before straying onto tangents, or before I stumble into creative license issues. But I intend to be back soon to talk more about oral history (and maybe some of the not-so-good ones.)


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Read more about Oral History! Troy Reeves explores the popularity and variety of oral history projects.In the Breakroom with Jessie Garcia: an interview about work with the noted sportscaster.Wisconsin Women Making History and our Working Lives Project shine light on ‘making a living and making a life’ in Wisconsin.


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