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Oral History - Methodologies and Sources

This guide brings together information on oral history methodology as well as a list of select oral history collections and resources at Duke Libraries.

Oral history, revolutionized with the development of portable sound recording equipment less than a century ago, offers historians and archivists -- amateur or professional -- first-person access to history, adding personal dimension to scholarship and deepening stories with voices that might otherwise remain silent.  But oral history also suffers from an Achilles heel – not every witness to an era or an event or a life will add meaningfully to a story without adequate preparation on the part of the interviewer.  With the significant investment in resources required by oral history, the single most important step the oral historian can take is defining the purpose and the product of the interview.

In arriving at these definitions, the project leader/interviewer should be able to answer the following questions clearly and completely.*

  • What is the purpose of this project? What questions need answering, and what is the anticipated intellectual outcome?
  • How can the subject (a.k.a. interviewee or narrator) contribute to answering the questions or inform research on the topic generally?
  • Is there a budget or are resources allocated to the project?
  • How will the interview be recorded?
  • What will happen after the interview?
    • How will the recorder copy be stored?
    • Could editing be necessary?
    • Will a finding aid be created, or added to? By whom?
    • Will text transcription happen? How?
    • Will the interview be published? Where?
    • Will electronic/online access be provided to the transcript and media? How?

This guide is intended to assist in navigating these questions, so that you, as an oral historian, can create an interview that adds richness to the record.  The guide will also provide resources for further reading and a selected list of oral histories held in collections at Duke's David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library.  What this guide does not do is discuss oral history theory; however, there is a rich literature on the topic of the recording of personal memory, its uses and attendant risks in the writing of history, and those interested in the topic are encouraged to explore the library catalog, have a look at Oral History in the Digital Age, and check out the Oral History Association website.

*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/