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Capturing the Living Past: An Oral History Primer

4. Planning: The Key to Successful Oral History

Whether you want to conduct one or two interviews with family members or dozens of interviews for a community or organization, take some time to think through what you want to accomplish.
Even small projects can grow, so don't rush out with your recorder. Think it through first. It will pay off in the end.

Here are some questions to ask yourself at the very beginning:

What am I trying to accomplish?

Why do you want to do an oral history interview - or a big project with many interviews? The answer usually involves your belief that an individual or a group of people has a lot of firsthand knowledge about something that hasn't ever been written down. Your desire to record this information for posterity may well drive your motivations.

How can I make sure I don't lose sight of what I'm trying to accomplish?

Give your project a name and write a simple mission statement. A mission statement defines and focuses an oral history project. It provides a tool to keep the project manageable and the interviews on target.

Mission statements generally cover. . .

Here's an example:

The Ace School Oral History Project will be conducted by the Douglas County Historical Society during the summer and fall of 2005. It will cover the school's closing in 2004 due to consolidation. The focus will be on the stories of students, teachers, administrators, service personnel, community leaders and school board members. The project has a goal of 20 fully-processed interviews. Interview materials will become part of the collections of the Douglas County Historical Society. The project will follow the standards of the Oral History Association.

Who is going to do the work?

Oral history projects succeed when volunteer or paid leaders take responsibility for them.
Project directors should be able to. . .

Where will we put our interviews when we're through?

Oral history projects generate recordings, transcripts, and record-keeping materials. They also can bring to light photographs, letters, diaries, artifacts and other materials that narrators may want to donate with the interviews.

Finding a repository for the results of your interviews is an important planning step. Institutions such as libraries, archives, museums, and other historical organizations can properly house the interviews and other materials, and see that they are useable to future researchers.

How should I go about finding a repository?

Here are some guidelines to help you identify and work with a repository:

How can I get advice along the way as I get ready to do oral history interviews?

Selecting an advisory board is a useful option.

Although you probably don't need an advisory board for one- or two-family interviews, much oral history work can benefit from a board. Advisory board members should be people who can help with topical background information, selection of narrators, finding a repository, representing the project to the community, and finding support as needed.

An advisory board need not be large and it need not meet regularly, if at all. Its members should agree to have their names listed in all project materials and to help the project with specific tasks when asked.

How long will all this take?

It all depends. That's why it makes sense to think this through before you start. Oral history projects can tend to take on a life of their own -- each interview may suggest others to conduct. The more interviews you do, the longer it will take. The more help you have, the more efficiently the work can get done.

Many experienced oral historians say it makes more sense to do a handful of interviews well rather than aim to interview dozens - or hundreds - of people if you can't be sure you have the resources to support a huge project.

Be realistic when you think about how long you are willing to work on your oral history efforts and how many interviews you can collect. Both decisions help keep the project focused and on track. A mission statement can reflect this project scope and time frame.

How can I keep track of what I'm doing?

All oral history projects, whether individual family interviews or multi-interview projects, need standard record-keeping forms. This list briefly describes forms you will need. Click on each one to see an example.

How much will all this cost?

Again, it all depends. How many interviews do you plan to conduct? Do you have volunteers or will staff be paid? Do you already have access to equipment or will you need to buy it or rent it?

Your friends, acquaintances or advisory board members may know of or have access to funds or in-kind contributions, grants or donations that will help cover the expenses of your oral history efforts. Some of your costs will be one-time expenses while others may be ongoing.

What do you mean by one-time expenses?

One-time expenses cover a lot of the basic oral history needs. They include. . .

See Section 5 for more details.

How about ongoing expenses?

The ongoing expenses of oral history are your overhead costs. They include. . .

A one-interview family oral history may not incur the costs of printing letterhead and brochures. And you already might have a computer, telephone or fax machine to use. But they still represent costs associated with carrying out an oral history interview.

Are there more costs I should budget for?

Yes. Each interview will incur costs, in both time and money. Some are as follows:

Many of these costs may be met by in-kind contributions of an interviewer's time. You might even be able to find volunteer transcribers. But be forewarned: Transcribing is a tough job and even the most willing volunteer might get discouraged.

At the very least, you almost certainly will have to purchase - or seek the donation of - recording media on which to record the interviews, even if everything else is donated or comes out of your own pocket.

I'm eager to start interviewing. Are there any other plans I need to make?

Yes. Before you start those interviews, think about how you'll process them after you turn off the recorder.

What do you mean by processing?

Processing refers to what you do with the interview materials after the interview is over. The purpose is to assure ongoing preservation of and access to the information the interview captures, essentially by preparing the interview and its associated materials for deposit in the chosen repository. For details on processing, see Section 10.

How do I process an interview?

Besides producing a brief synopsis of the contents of the interview, processing an oral history interview can take either of these basic forms:

An abstract summarizes what the narrator said at intervals in the recording (usually three- to five-minute intervals, or when the subject substantially changes in the course of the interview). An abstract requires the researcher to listen to the actual interview to access the specific information it contains.

A transcript, on the other hand, is time consuming. It can take an average of eight hours to transcribe one hour of recorded interview. However, transcripts provide long-term access to interview information even without use of the actual recording.

More information on processing is available in Section 10.

Can I start interviewing now?

Not quite yet. You need to make arrangements to train interviewers - or get some training yourself, if you are the sole interviewer.

What kind of training is important?

Well-trained interviewers are critical to the success of an oral history project. Many experienced oral historians suggest scheduling a one-day training session before beginning the interviews. This session should focus on the following:

Most interviewing workshops last at least half a day. Contact the Nebraska Humanities Council for information on workshop funding options for oral history project training.

Is there anything else to plan?

Just one more thing, especially if you are working on a multi-interview project: Plan to publicize what you do after you are finished.

Oral history projects can be a source of pride to an organization, a school, a neighborhood or a community. When projects are completed, project directors should send out press releases with information about the project and what it accomplished. They may also want to put on a public event or sponsor a celebration for everyone involved in the project.

Why should I wait until the project is finished to brag about it?

Project publicity is good, with one exception: Don't advertise in the news media for possible narrators. Such an announcement can overwhelm a project with names of people who may or may not be good interview sources. Placing a notice in the local media may also imply the promise of an interview, which may not always best serve the project.


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