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Oral History Databases

Oral History Library - Minnesota Historical Society

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"Since 1948, the Minnesota Historical Society has used oral history to document Minnesota’s past and present. The Oral History Collection of the Minnesota Historical Society includes more than 1600 interviews with Minnesotans from across the state." MNHS possesses distinct collections focusing on Minnesota Immigrant Oral Histories, the US Dakota War of 1862, and Voices of Minnesota.

 

Sound Portraits - Public Radio Exchange

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"Sound Portraits Productions was the predecessor to the national oral-history project, StoryCorps...Sound Portraits Productions was first established as a not-for-profit 501(c)3 corporation in 1994 by MacArthur Fellow David Isay. Sound Portraits Productions was an independent production company dedicated to telling stories that bring neglected American voices to a national audience."

 

Visible Lives, Oral Histories of the Disability Experience - The New York Public Library

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"Visible Lives: Oral Histories of the Disability Experience is an oral history project that works to both preserve and document a thematic history through personal recollections."

 

Densho Digital Repository - Densho, Japanese American Museum

"Densho’s mission is to preserve the testimonies of Japanese Americans who were unjustly incarcerated during World War II before their memories are extinguished. We offer these irreplaceable firsthand accounts, coupled with historical images and teacher resources, to explore principles of democracy, and promote equal justice for all."

 

The Studs Terkel Radio Archive - WFMT Radio Network and Chicago History Museum

"Over the course of his 45 years on WFMT radio, Studs Terkel discussed every aspect of 20th-century life with movers, shakers, artists, and working folks.From civil rights to labor to jazz, his work spanned an impressive array of topics and figures. This temporary website provides access to several hundred interviews in an existing online collection. Over the course of the coming years, this website will transform into a robust and completely public archive, featuring thousands of additional programs."

Your Librarian

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Devon Olson
Contact:
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Oral History Project - Resource Guide

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Your Interview Plan - from the Oral History Association's "Principles and Best Practices"

Pre-Interview:

1). To prepare to ask informed questions, conduct background research on the person, topic, and larger context in both primary and secondary sources.

2). Oral historians should send an introductory letter (via email or postal mail) outlining the general focus and purpose of the interview, and then follow-up with either a phone call or a return email. In projects involving groups in which literacy is not the norm, or when other conditions make it appropriate, participation may be solicited via face to face meetings.

3). After securing the narrator’s agreement to be interviewed, schedule a non-recorded meeting, either in-person or virtually. This pre-interview session will allow an exchange of information between interviewer and narrator on:

- the oral history’s purposes and procedures in general and of the proposed interview’s aims and anticipated uses (be sure to mention the Institutional Repository).

-the length of the interview

-possible questions/topics

-the need for informed consent

-his or her rights to the interviews including editing, access restrictions, copyrights, prior use, royalties, and the expected disposition and dissemination of all forms of the record, including the potential distribution electronically or on-line.

-that his or her recording(s) will remain confidential until he or she has given permission via a signed legal release.

4). Before the interview, get to know your equipment. Do a few trial runs and monitor the audio quality.

5). Prepare an outline of interview topics and questions to use as a guide to the recorded dialogue.

 

Interview:

1). The interview should be conducted in a quiet room with minimal background noises and possible distractions. Close doors and windows, check that neither you nor your interviewee have clothing or jewelry that makes noise, and make sure that no one fidgets with clicking pens or other objects.

2). The interviewer should record a “lead” at the beginning of each session to help focus his or her and the narrator’s thoughts to each session’s goals. The “lead” should consist of, at least, the names of narrator and interviewer, day and year of session, interview’s location, and proposed subject of the recording.

3). Keep the following items in mind:

-interviewers should work to achieve a balance between the objectives of the project and the perspectives of the interviewees. Explore all appropriate areas of inquiry with interviewees and do not be satisfied with superficial responses. At the same time, encourage narrators to respond to questions in their own style and language and to address issues that reflect their concerns.

-respect the rights of interviewees to refuse to discuss certain subjects, to restrict access to the interview, or, under certain circumstances, to choose anonymity. Interviewers should clearly explain these options to all interviewees.

-you should attempt to extend the inquiry beyond the specific focus of the project to create as complete a record as possible for the benefit of others.

4). Secure a release form, by which the narrator transfers his or her rights to the interview to the repository or designated body, signed after each recording session or at the end of the last interview with the narrator.

 

Post-Interview:

1). Understand that appropriate care and storage of original recordings begins immediately after their creation.

2). Document your preparation and methods, including the circumstances of the interviews and provide that information to whatever repository will be preserving and providing access to the interview.

3). Collect photographs, documents, or other records and information relevant for the interpretation of the oral history by future users. Make clear to users the availability and connection of these materials to the recorded interview.

4). All those who use oral history interviews should strive for intellectual honesty and the best application of the skills of their discipline. They should avoid stereotypes, misrepresentations, and manipulations of the narrator’s words. This includes foremost striving to retain the integrity of the narrator’s perspective, recognizing the subjectivity of the interview, and interpreting and contextualizing the narrative according to the professional standards of the applicable scholarly disciplines. Finally, if a project deals with community history, the interviewer should be sensitive to the community, taking care not to reinforce thoughtless stereotypes. Interviewers should strive to make the interviews accessible to the community and where appropriate to include representatives of the community in public programs or presentations of the oral history material.

 

Sample Questions

Sample Interview Questions

on Working from StoryCorps' "Great Questions"

  • What do you do for a living?
  • Tell me about how you got into your line of work.
  • Do you like your job?
  • What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
  • What did you want to be when you grew up?
  • What lessons has your work life taught you?
  • If you could do anything now, what would you do? Why?
  • Do you plan on retiring? If so, when? How do you feel about it?
  • Do you have any favorite stories from your work life?

 

on Community and Tradition from the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

  • Describe the place — urban neighborhood, small town, rural community, suburb — where you grew up. What was it like? How has it changed over the years? What brought about these changes? What did people do for a living? What do they do now?
  • What was/is it like in your local community? Your neighborhood? Your family home? Your farmstead? What places stand out most in your mind and why? What are/were your neighbors like? What kinds of local gatherings and events are there? What stories and memories come to mind?
  • What community traditions are celebrated today? Church suppers? Chinese New Year parades? Saint’s day processions? Cinco de Mayo celebrations? What are they like? How long have they been going on? How have they changed? Who is involved? Why are they important to the community?
  • How did you first get started with this particular tradition/skill? What got you interested?
  • How did you learn your skills? Who taught you? When? What was the learning process like? What is the most challenging or difficult aspect of the tradition to learn? Why?
  • What are the key characteristics of the tradition? What is its history? Do you know how and where the tradition originated? How has it traditionally been practiced? How has it changed or developed over time?
  • How do you judge excellence within the tradition? What standards and criteria are used to evaluate the way the tradition is performed? What makes someone respected in the tradition?
  • What do you think is the future of this tradition? What are its challenges and opportunities? Are others learning and practicing the tradition?

Readings

Readings in Oral History