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Designing an Oral History Project

Designing an Oral History Project:
Initial Questions to Ask Yourself

by Doug Boyd

It is a great feeling when you commit yourself, your organization or your community to an oral history project.  It is a great privilege to record someone’s life story and a great responsibility to care for that story in a preservation environment.  We conduct oral histories, not for obscurity, but to eventually connect one person’s story to the larger historical narrative.  Part of what defines oral history projects are the questions asked during the interview.  However, you the project designer, have some questions to answer before even beginning.   Early choices you make in a project will affect later opportunities, for that is the nature of choice.  Decisions have consequences.  So, the following are a set of questions I encourage project designers to ask when embarking on their oral history adventure.

Why are you Doing This Project?

This is an important question to ask.  In fact, after some thought you may want to write it down.  This becomes your project mission or vision statement, which helps you to accomplish several things.  First, it keeps you on task for you now have a focus.  You could plan a project that interviews everyone about everything but that project will be unfocused and random and may never be finished, in fact it may never even begin.  Focus is crucial for a successful oral history project.  Each new interview will potentially open many new doors for your project and you will have to choose which ones to enter because time and resources are limited.  The even greater benefit of a project vision or mission is clarity.  Each person you interview will wonder to themselves, “why are you interviewing me,” and some will even ask you this directly.  It is vitally important to clearly communicate to the narrator or interviewee just why you are interested in their story.

Often an oral history project involves partnerships.  This mission needs to be coordinated by the partners in a project so that all of the partners are on the same page throughout the course of this project.

 What is Your Desired Outcome From this Project?

The digital age provides major possibilities for disseminating your oral history project.  You will be able to have your interviews represented in some sort of cool production or publication online, accessible to the world, with just a laptop computer and a cup of coffee.   Although the final product of your project will be greatly defined by choices you make, the production should not be the project.   I have seen many impressive productions edited from oral histories whose producers paid little attention to the full interviews after the production is completed.  I urge you to consider your archival capabilities and options before considering the production.  Will you be doing your project for broadcast or production?  If so, make sure you are capturing your recordings in a format and a resolution that is appropriate for your desired outcome.  If the Internet is your desired delivery mechanism, this no longer means that lower resolution material is acceptable.  Capture your audio and video at the highest resolutions that you can afford to capture, you can always make lower resolution copies.  If the project is for broadcast, make sure the setting where you are conducting your interviews is also conducive to the delivery format.  Video interviews poorly lit or with a distracting background or audio interviews conducted in a restaurant, will both be difficult for the public to engage.  Design your project in accordance with your desired outcome, but do not forget the archival or curating phase of a project.

 What Recording Equipment Will You Use?

This is a significant question that will create very specific and very different needs for successful completion.  These choices will also contain very different degrees of technical expertise throughout the collecting, curating, and disseminating phases of your project.  No matter if you choose audio or video, you will need to be “recording” audio.  Understand how microphones work and choose a microphone appropriate to your needs and to the interview context.  Will you need two lapel microphones or will you need a tabletop microphone?  Does the microphone you have work well with the recorder you are going to purchase?   A major consideration you will need to make is if you will be using professional or consumer equipment?  Professional equipment has greater capabilities to recorder a better oral history interview.  However, this is often accompanied by greater complexity, especially with digital video.   If you are not experienced with professional equipment you will need to actively seek out user-friendly equipment (which does not always equate to consumer level equipment), obtain appropriate training on your desired equipment, or outsource the recording process of your project.

Your choices will have major budgetary differences and create very different long-term archival challenges.  Do not underestimate the long-term cost of digital video, it can be significant.  Do not underestimate the power of an audio-only project, it can be very powerful in its potential impact.  Still, we are living in a video oriented culture and society.  In effort to facilitate your answer, I will present the question of recording audio or video with another question: Who will be your audience for this oral history project?

 What are your budget Needs?

Oral History can be extremely expensive, but it can also be done with a basic audio recorder, video camera and time.  This question directly correlates to the previous question.  If you are conducting your project as part of a production, the project can be very costly.  An interview that looks “studio quality” was often conducted in a studio utilizing a trained technician using professional level equipment under carefully controlled lighting.  If this is the look that you desire, it may be more cost effective to outsource the recording of interviews to a professional.  As I have already asked you, will you be using consumer or professional-level equipment?  The line between professional or consumer equipment is blurred when it comes to digital audio, however, with digital video, the divide between consumer and professional-level equipment can have great budgetary consequences.

If you need to store your digital project on external hard drives or on a server, it can be expensive, especially if you are recording digital video.  If you are transcribing your interviews, it can be labor intensive and potentially, very expensive costly. If you are paying to have transcripts created, assume that someone should do a “quality control” check converting the “first draft” transcripts to a final draft.  First draft transcripts can contain numerous and potentially significant errors.

How will you be disseminating your project?  Will you need web space?  Will you need to design a website? Will you need software and hardware for your computer in order to convert your media into a format that is more web friendly? Thinking through the collecting, curating and disseminating phases of your project prior to beginning your project will greatly enhance your abilities to budget or fundraise for your project.

What is your level of technical expertise?

If you are not currently comfortable with current audio, video, or computer technologies, take the time to learn.  Attend workshops, read manuals, and practice.  Learn how to record, whether audio or video, the best signal possible.  You do not need expensive equipment but you do need to understand and know how to use your equipment.

Digital technology is amazing, however, it can also be very precarious.  You do not want to waste anyone’s time, money or precious recorded life story by losing or damaging a digital file/oral history interview due to your user error.  From the moment you press the “record” button on your recorder or camera, you become the curator of that digital object.  Understand how to best care for the digital object you have just created throughout the collecting, curating and disseminating phases of your project.  If you do not have the expertise, partner with someone who does.

Do you have enough Digital Storage?

Digital recording creates large digital files.  One hour of high-resolution audio can be 2 gigabytes.  One hour of high definition digital video can be 100 gigabytes per hour.  Be prepared to store whatever you collect and make sure that you have redundancy.  Make sure you have a storage plan prior to beginning the project.  Even if you partner with an archive, you may need to store your interviews locally before you transfer the material to the archive.  Make sure this is an adequate and stable environment.  See the next question.

Who is your Archival Partner/What is Your Archival Strategy?

If you do not have archival expertise, I highly recommend you partner with an archival institution who understands the intricacies of digital preservation of audio and video materials.  It is complex and expensive.  We no longer live in an era where you can record an interview, put it on a “shelf,” forget about it for 20 years, and expect to play it back.  Digital objects must be carefully curated as an ongoing process.  If you do partner with an archive, design your project so that it fits in with their workflows and protocols.  Find out if the archive you will be working with has a specific release form that you should be using.  This will simplify the process if addressed form the outset.

 What Are the Legal and Ethical Questions You Should Be Considering?

A two-hour recording of a life history interview can contain a massive amount of personal information.  Have you considered implications of documenting and preserving these stories and making them publicly accessible?  Accessibility in a digital age equates to potential global distribution.  This can be fun with “viral videos” depicting silly mistakes or bad music videos.  There can be a serious downside to the text of a recorded expression of personal detail being indexed by Google within minutes of going online, thus becoming searchable worldwide.  Consider the access strategies of your project before embarking on your first interview.  Consider whether that access strategy that you have in mind for this project concurs with the content you will be collecting.  Are there any obvious ethical or legal challenges or implications that you anticipate with your project?

Remember that personal information is personal.  Make sure that your narrator or interviewee is giving informed consent to the recording of the interview and signs an appropriate release form.  Understand that an oral history interview creates a relationship between, not only the interviewee and the interviewer but also between the interviewee and the project.  This will carry on throughout the curating and disseminating phases of the project as well.  What will you need to do in project design to ensure that promises made are promises kept?

 Are You Ready?

Finally, remember that no amount of digital technology for collecting, curating, or disseminating oral histories will make you a better interviewer.  Do your homework and research the topic you will be interviewing about.  Interviewing is not easy.  There are many books, articles and workshops dedicated to the topic of oral history interviewing.  Take advantage of these resources as best as you can.  As I stated in the introduction of this essay, it is a great privilege to record someone’s life story and a great responsibility to care for that story in a preservation environment. This is your project.  Make informed choices and design a project that is right for you, but remember, it is not your story that is being recorded or archived.  Most importantly, design a project that respects these life stories you will be collecting, curating, and disseminating.

Citation for Article

APA

Boyd, D. A. (2012). Designing an oral history project: initial questions to ask yourself. In D. Boyd, S. Cohen, B. Rakerd, & D. Rehberger (Eds.), Oral history in the digital age. Institute of Library and Museum Services. Retrieved from http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/designing-an-oral-history-project/.

Chicago

Boyd, Douglas A. “Designing an Oral History Project: Initial Questions to Ask Yourself,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, edited by Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2012, http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/designing-an-oral-history-project/

 

This is a production of the Oral History in the Digital Age Project (http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu) sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).  Please consult http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/about/rights/ for information on rights, licensing, and citation.

Permanent link to this article: http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/designing-an-oral-history-project/

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