Written by Jennifer Hill and Allison Ransom
Archivists from the Gerth Archives and Special Collections recently attended an oral history workshop titled “Capturing the Spoken Word: Oral History Workshop” on February 26, 2022 with funding from California Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The workshop, led by Dr. Natalie Fousekis of the Lawrence de Graaf Center for Oral and Public History at California State University, Fullerton, educated the archivists, along with other archives professionals, historians, students, and other interested parties, about the oral history process.
What we learned from the workshop will inform the work the Gerth Archives and Special Collections has been doing to grow their oral history collections. Interested in oral history? Here are some takeaways from the event:
The documentation of history’s “how, why, who, what, and where” by way of interviewing a person and creating an audio and/or visual recording of the interview. The practice adds to the historical record as well as provides a platform for people who may not frequently have their voices heard.
Asking good questions, and being a good listener.
Interviewers either do “topical” or “life history” interviews, meaning interviews about a certain event or topic, or about someone’s personal life. Oral historians research the interviewee, or narrator, beforehand to create open-ended questions for the interview that aim to add information to the historical record about a person or topic. The questions can be either “descriptive” which, according to Dr. Fousekis, usually comprise the bulk of interview questions, or “reflective,” which encourage the narrator to evaluate and interpret their own life. This latter type of question is what distinguishes an oral history interview from a journalistic interview, since it empowers the narrator to make meaning out of what they have experienced or done in their life.
In advance of an interview, interviewers should contact the narrator for a preliminary phone interview. During this initial conversation, the interviewer can describe what kind of questions they plan on asking, how long you expect the interview to take, where it will take place, and to let them know how the interview will be recorded. According to Dr. Fousekis, it’s important to orient the narrator first so they feel comfortable during the interview and can prepare what they want to talk about beforehand, and even bring pictures, letters, or other items to help describe their story. Interviewers should also prepare to take field notes to describe the setting of the interview and any other information not recorded audibly or visually, and also make sure their recording equipment works.
The recordings will likely be preserved by a library or archive, and then made accessible to researchers who are curious about the topics discussed in the interview and/or the life of the narrator. However, narrators are not giving up ownership of their life stories. Interviews can be restricted per a donor agreement, or there can be restrictive time limits for how long the recordings can be restricted from researchers for. Narrators can also sign a legal release and deed of gift to permit the collection of their story and the acquisition of the recordings by a library or archive, as well as to reserve copyright for publications, meaning the recordings cannot be published without the copyright holder’s (the narrator) permission. Institutional Review Board (IRB) forms can also be signed by the interviewer, which means that the interview will adhere to the protocols set in place by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to protect people who are the “subject” of research or similar activities.
No! Dr. Fousekis defined oral history as “democratic,” meaning that anyone who wants to record history can do so. If you are interested in conducting oral histories, you can reach out to the Gerth Archives and Special Collections for information on how to get started, or start on your own using open-source resources, such as the StoryCorps app, that can help you get started.
The Gerth Archives and Special Collections started a test project for an oral history initiative in 2019, during which staff members interviewed members of the Fannie Lou Hamer Queen Mothers Society at CSUDH. Progress on the initiative was put on hold in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but funding from a grant provided by California Humanities and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) as part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 helped the department continue their work in 2022. The funding from the grant has allowed CSUDH to establish an oral history program with specific collection goals. Currently, project consultant Beth Mcdonald and Gerth Archives and Special Collections staff have been scheduling and conducting oral histories with individuals including CSUDH Emeriti faculty, members of the Fannie Lou Hamer Queen Mothers Society, and other people from CSUDH and Southern LA County.
Stay tuned for updates about the growing oral history collections at the Gerth Archives and Special Collections!