University of Missouri Extension

GG8, Reviewed October 1993

Oral History in Your Community

Carolynne M. Kieffer
Department of Sociology
Kieffer prepared this manuscript while a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Aging Studies, University of Missouri-Kansas City.

The way of life that was characteristic of the earlier Midwest is rapidly disappearing. Many of our elders have vivid memories of those days; however, these memories are being lost every day. Many communities and groups are trying to preserve those memories while the elderly are still with us.

In the last decade or two, we have seen the development of a new appreciation of the past and of our cultural heritage. People search for "roots" and prepare genealogies to fulfill an apparent need for a sense of historical continuity.

Many community leaders have come to realize that the elderly are an excellent source of information about the past. Their individual lives span most of a century, and there is much to be gained from stories of their lives. The stories of these lives, told from the perspective of many years of living, have meaning now and in the future. If these stories can be recorded, your community can capture for posterity the historical facts and the human interest element of these lives (for example, feelings about growing up in that time and place). A collection of life accounts can be a valuable resource for understanding the history and special culture of your community.

What is oral history?

You may have noticed that a number of historical associations, women's groups, and other community groups recently have begun recording on tape the life stories of their older citizens. Historians have long been interested in learning about earlier times from older persons through a method known as oral history. Oral history refers to the tradition of recording facts of a historical nature relevant to a time and a particular setting.

The elderly as sources of local history

If your community has decided that it would like to record its own history, you have probably come to the conclusion that your older citizens are the best living sources of historical information. The elder citizens of any community are the only persons old enough to have experienced and to recall the past (for example, blacksmithing activities in your town at the turn of the century or the first time an automobile appeared in the community). They have also lived long enough to have a historical perspective on the past.

Many older citizens will be willing and honored to share their past with you in an oral history interview. If these persons are treated as sources of vital historical information, they will likely be glad to tell you about the past in your community. If an older person seems to have a good and reliable memory about the period you have identified, has a fair amount of self-confidence, and appears to enjoy talking about the past, she or he is probably a very good prospect for your interviewing endeavor.

Who should do oral history interviewing?

Let us suppose that your community or group has decided to gather information about its past through oral history interviewing. We must also assume, then, that the interviewing and filing of this information will be done through responsible auspices. Local historical societies and volunteers who work with community facilities such as museums tend to be committed to doing responsible and sensitive interviewing.

The Extension Homemakers Association is another organization of persons who have done some historically related or documentary local work. Also, retired school teachers and university instructors have the intellectual skills and are "naturals" to help in a variety of ways. These various groups should be able to assist in obtaining oral history information if they are willing to move slowly and systematically toward their goals.

Be informed

The basic purpose for recording oral history is to learn about the past. However, the persons who plan to conduct an oral history program must take the time and effort to learn more about the historical context — the Twenties, the Depression, or the specifics of local government in that earlier period — before they begin the interviewing part of their work. Generally, the more background knowledge the interviewer possesses, the more relevant and useful will be the information coming from the oral history.

Develop your committees

Once your group has decided to record on tape the memories and insights of the elders of the community, you now face the challenge of identifying and developing your various leaders.

You will need:

Volunteers who have not been associated with your group can serve a useful function in your oral history project. Choose volunteers wisely. Your group will probably need or want to orient them to the project and possibly provide some other training. Be certain that these volunteers will have the ability and the persistence to follow through once you have invested your time and effort in their training.

Choosing a respondent

Basically two approaches can be used in selecting respondents. The first approach to collecting oral history involves interviewing an older person because he or she is thought to have stories and other life experiences to share. Because Smith is age 89, has lived in your community all his life, and is an intelligent and thoughtful person, you may assume that his perspective on the history of your community is worth recording.

A second method involves identifying an issue about which your group would like to know more — information that is not handled with any degree of depth in your local library. At this point your group would go about identifying persons in the community (or who had lived in the community during the period in question) who are knowledgeable about the issue you have chosen.

Either of these approaches may be appropriate at one time or another. The basic difference is that in the first approach you choose to interview Smith because he is 89 years old and is intelligent and thoughtful. In the latter approach your group may be interested in the development of the railroad in your community and you choose to interview Jones because he lived in the town when the railroad was introduced there and was one of the first employees of the railroad in those days.

In your early contacts with each potential resource person, you will need to be sensitive to how this individual feels about his or her expertise (with regard to the Depression, for example). You will need to get a sense of whether your potential narrator feels that he or she has something important to say in this regard. Most persons, if approached with respect, will be pleased to share with you and with posterity the experience of the past that is uniquely theirs.

Taping oral history

The tape recorder has made possible the recording of oral history interviews on a fairly large scale.

The life histories of many of the early statesmen of this country appear as biographies and in other forms. We know a good deal about their lives because of the diaries that many leading figures kept in those days and also because of the extensive personal correspondence that was carried on. The telephone and other modern conveniences may prevent us from developing permanent records for historians of the future to study. The tape recorder, however, is one tool that will — if we make use of it — provide a permanent record of the experiences and explanations of our now-older citizens.

Taping is undoubtedly the best method of recording the oral history interview as it unfolds. Your group may want to buy a moderately-priced recorder for your needs. The recorder should be small enough to be relatively inconspicuous. Buy a well-known brand of recorder, and choose high quality tapes with brand-names you recognize. Sixty-minute tapes (30 minutes per side) are easier to use and seem to cause fewer difficulties than longer ones.

Typing oral history

Eventually you may wish to transcribe your oral history tapes. It is expensive; however, once the interviews have been transcribed, the oral histories will be much easier to use. Transcribed pages should be placed in flexible or hardcover binders, depending on their volume.

Do not underestimate the effort and expense involved in transcribing tapes. Before you decide to introduce transcription into your oral history program you might wish to consult a reference work such as Oral History: From Tape to Type by Cullom Davis and associates.

As you interview

Questions interviewers may find useful


The Missouri Gerontology Institute develops and coordinates instruction, research and extension activities on aging among the university campuses (Columbia, Kansas City, Rolla and St. Louis), Lincoln University and MU Extension.
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