Welcome to the Oral History Libguide! This guide offers tips and tools to help you plan and implement an oral history project. We designed this guide to support oral historians of all experience levels.
Here you will find:
An overview of oral history best practices and principles
Information for interviewers to consider before, during and after an interview
Information for participants (also known as narrators or interviewees) throughout the interview process
Release form examples and other documentation materials used in an oral history project
A glossary of common terms used in oral history
Additional resources to support you in your oral history journey
Note that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to oral history; flexibility is key as you approach your project. As such, this research guide should be considered a helpful resource, and not a strict set of rules.
This guide can also complement the BPL Oral History Backpack, which contains a portable audio recorder, guidebook, and other helpful tools for an oral history project. Starting May 20, 2023, BPL Oral History Backpacks can be checked out at participating Boston Public Library branches. For backpack availability, check the catalog record linked below.
Oral history is a method of conducting historical research through interviews. It is also a way to gather, preserve and interpret the voices and memories of people and communities relating to past events. The term "oral history" can refer to the act of creating a recorded testimony. It can also refer to the materials produced in an interview (whether it is audio, video, or written).
To gather and preserve information about the past, oral historians interview narrators. Oral history doesn’t just record stories about the past. It allows us to place people’s lived experiences within larger social and historical contexts. Narrators tell these stories through the lens of memory, often many years later. These memories give us a deeper understanding of our shared past, and how we sort through that past in the present day.
A successful oral history project rests upon a relationship between the interviewer and the narrator. The interviewer offers guided questions based on research and careful preparation. The interviewer also records and preserves the interview. Narrators shape the interview by sharing insights and experiences that they believe to be meaningful to the project. The interview process can feel fluid and conversational. But an oral history is grounded in thoughtful planning and follow-through of a process that has been agreed upon before recording.
You don’t need to be a professional historian or recording artist to create an oral history. Whether you're brand new to oral history or have many interviews under your belt, you can do oral history. Your oral history project and scope can be as specific or as wide-ranging as you like, and this guide has lots of tips to help you along the way.
Oral history is likely as old as storytelling and language themselves. Many cultures have used oral history to share knowledge before audio recording. For example, Indigenous communities, such as the Massachusett tribe, use oral history to pass down lessons, world views, and ancestral knowledge. Oral history became increasingly centered around technology with the invention of portable recorders in the 1930s. It later gained a larger following in colleges during the 1960s. Feminists, working class and LGBTQ activists, racial minorities, and other historically marginalized communities have also embraced oral history as a way of recording stories that were long neglected by academic and cultural institutions. With recording technology becoming more widespread, oral history is more accessible today than ever before!
Adapted from "Introduction: The Evolution of Oral History" The Oxford Handbook of Oral History, edited by Donald A. Ritchie, 2012. Image source: Douglas DeNatale and Carl Fleischhauer, Yvonne Legasse at her apartment, Lowell, Massachusetts,1987, Library of Congress.
This libguide was developed by Community History staff and interns at the BPL. This guide was informed by the Boston Research Center's Oral History Toolkit, along with guidance from the Oral History Association and our colleagues at Princeton University Library, Georgia Public Library Service, Door County Library, and Kentucky Historical Society. We thank them for sharing their experiences and insights about their own circulating oral history kits and guidance, and invite you to explore their work and projects below: