Who, What, Where, When and Why of Oral History

Who

Everyone has a story to tell! Perhaps you’re hoping to record the experience of a family member who served in the military, or a neighbor who is interested in telling their life story. Every voice is important and worth preserving. At the same time, anyone can conduct an interview. Oral history is multi-disciplinary, and is often used by historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and linguists. In the 1970s, scholars gathered interviews to access the experiences of people at the grassroots level, whose voices were previously neglected. In her book, A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi, Emilye Crosby relies on a large number of civil-rights related interviews.[i] J. Todd Moye also uses an extensive collection of oral histories to understand the Mississippi Delta in his work Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1945-1986.[ii] Both of these historians have deposited their interviews at the Center for Oral History (COHCH), and can be accessed as part of our collections. However, you don’t have to be a professional historian to be part of this process. As long as you familiarize yourself with the techniques, you have the ability to produce a useful interview

 

What

Donald Ritchie is the author of the essential work on oral history practice, Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide.[iii] The following excerpt from his book clearly articulates the nature of oral history and its uses.

“Memory is the core of oral history, from which meaning can be extracted and preserved. Simply put, oral history collects memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews. An oral history interview generally consists of a well-prepared interviewer questioning an interviewee and recording their exchange in audio or video format. Recordings of the interview are transcribed, summarized, or indexed and then place in a library of archives. These interview may be used for research of excerpted in a publication, radio or video documentary, museum exhibition, dramatization or other form of public presentation.”[iv]

  

Where

You can find oral histories in a variety of different places.  You just have to know where to look!  Oral histories come in many different forms.  There are still reel-to-reel recordings, as well as numerous cassettes and, if they exist, transcripts of these recorded interviews.  At the Center for Oral History, we catalog each of our items in the library’s database.  You can locate the text of preserved oral histories through the Cook Library’s webpage.  More recently, we have made available the audio of about 425 civil rights related interviews.  These are also cataloged and searchable online from the USM Digital Collection page. Transcribed interviews are in bound volumes in our offices at McCain Library, with preservation copies held in the USM Archives.  The interviews are OCLC searchable.  OCLC is useful for finding oral histories through other, similar institutions as the COHCH.  Interviews archived at local genealogical societies, state archival departments, and universities with oral history programs are discoverable through OCLC.  When you conduct your own oral history, it is important also to think about what you plan to do with your project.  Places like the Center for Oral History will accept interviews or other oral history projects to their collection, providing the appropriate permissions are in order.

 

When

Oral history has its roots in oral tradition, the verbal passing down of stories through generations.  The idea of physically preserving individual stories for specific academic purposes was a later invention of the 20th century, particularly as technology improved.  There were two early institutional iterations that laid a framework for future projects to emulate.  John B. Cade was an extension agent from Louisiana, who worked in conjunction with Southern University.[v]  He studied and taught slavery, and in 1929, he decided it would be beneficial to preserve former slaves’ stories for posterity.[vi]  In 1934, Lawrence Reddick began a Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) project that interviewed 250 former slaves[vii].  John Lomax, Benjamin Botkin, and J. Sterling Brown diverted from early practices of oral history as they collected interviews for their Works Progress Administration project.[viii]  Botkin later presented at the American Historical Association on the importance and validity of these types of sources, drawing on his experiences in the WPA.[ix]  Allan Nevins developed the first academic oral history program at Columbia University in 1948.[x]  Nevins was also the first to employ the new technology of reel-to-reel tape recorders[xi].  The University of California at Berkeley and UCLA soon followed and developed their programs in 1954 and 1958, respectively.[xii]  USM was one of these earlier institutions. Dr. Orley B. Caudill was the first director of the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, established in 1971.

  

Why

Conducting oral histories is a crucial part of the historical process. As an interviewer, you create a source of information that is often used in the later writing and presentation of history. Taking part in creating oral histories is also useful in learning more about yourself, and your community. While oral histories are important in understanding the role of individual historical actors, they also have the potential to shed light on larger historical processes occurring on the national and international stages.

 



[i] Emilye Crosby, A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).

[ii] J. Todd Moye, Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1945-1986 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

[iii] Donald A. Ritchie, Doing Oral History (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2015) p.19.

[iv] Ritchie, Doing Oral History. p.19.

[v] Ian Tyrrell, Historians in Public:  The Practice of American History, 1890-1970 (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2005) p.180.

[vi] Tyrrell, Historians in Public. p.180.

[vii] Tyrrell, Historians in Public. p.180.

[viii] Tyrrell, Historians in Public. p.180.

[ix] Tyrrell, Historians in Public. p.180.

[x] Ritchie, Doing Oral History. p.5.

[xi] Ritchie, Doing Oral History. p.5.

[xii] Ritchie, Doing Oral History. p.5.