The Building Blocks of Oral History

This past year, the Boston Research Center launched an oral history initiative to help local community members preserve their personal histories. In an effort to formalize the process for current and future projects, we developed an oral history toolkit. This guide has provided us the infrastructure to develop community-centered historical projects in an accessible and empowering way, and will hopefully be useful for aspiring oral historians who would like to start their own projects.

During the summer of 2020, the Boston Research Center met with several community partners, including social service organizations, activist groups, and community leaders. Though wide-ranging in their respective backgrounds, all shared an interest in collecting and preserving local or personal histories through storytelling. Based on their feedback, we began to pursue oral history, a method of historical research that gathers people’s lived experiences through recorded interviews. This approach helps present diverse perspectives on a given topic, and can therefore help fill in the gaps in dominant historical narratives. Oral history is also a collaborative process that allows participants to be involved through every step of the project. This, in turn, offers them the opportunity to tell their stories in empowering and authentic ways.

As we started to think about how to conduct our interviews, we realized we did not have a single, overarching handbook to help guide us through the entire oral history process. We had many questions. How does one start planning an oral history project? What ethical and legal considerations should we take into account? What questions should an interviewer ask? What equipment do we need? We found different resources from various institutions to help us answer these questions. Still, we lacked a consistency that addressed the specific needs of the Boston Research Center and our community partners. 

We therefore decided to create an oral history toolkit to serve as a comprehensive guide for this intricate process. The document offers best practices, tips on developing interview questions, check lists, templates, and legal release forms that contain language specific to Northeastern University’s Archives and Special Collections. Because we started compiling the toolkit in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, we also dedicated a section to conducting interviews remotely. 

Rather than start from scratch, we chose to build upon the many useful resources that were already available to us. We started the process by consulting the Oral History Association and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, two leading organizations in the oral history realm. We then branched out to see how oral history centers at different universities approached the topic, including the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley, the Columbia Center for Oral History Research, the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida, and the Institute for Oral History at Baylor University. We used this collection of resources as foundational groundwork, and then adapted any relevant information to reflect the needs and mission of the BRC. For instance, we initially referred to a webinar hosted by the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley on how to record oral history interviews using Zoom to get a sense of how they were navigating their technological needs during the pandemic. Then, we expanded on its useful information to create the “Oral History at a Distance” section of our toolkit.

We initially developed this toolkit as a reference document for those who would participate as interviewers, and it currently serves as the framework for training staff at the Northeastern University Library and Boston Public Library. Whether newcomers or experienced oral historians, this document was designed to be accessible to people with varying levels of experience. In November 2020, we held our inaugural training session for a small group of BPL librarians via Zoom, to great success. Due to increasing interest and excitement, we held an additional two training sessions in March 2021. 

Although initially created to help guide us through our developing projects, the toolkit is also meant to empower those who wish to start their own oral history projects. In an effort to make oral history a more accessible process for those interested in documenting and preserving their family or community history, we are also creating an abridged version for library patrons. If at any time they need guidance or support in their own endeavors, they will be able to turn to library staff, who have received the foundation to do so through the BPL training sessions.

There is no one-size-fits all approach to oral history. While some conduct interviews to contribute to historical research on an event or topic, others might see it as a way to document their personal family history. We hope that our toolkit will serve as a handy guide for both scenarios and anything in between.

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