As genealogists, if we think of oral history, we think of recording the life story of a relative. But actually, oral history has many facets and covers the spectrum from commercial interviews such as sports figures and politicians to academic investigations supporting a historical treatise about a specific event. My early exposure to all of these aspects of creating an audio record came from taking classes involving field techniques in linguistics. As a result, I acquired a Sony reel to reel tape recorder and started making recordings. Unfortunately, military service and other obligations intervened and I only made a very few recordings over the years.
Although making an audio recording of a relative may seem as simple as turning on a recorder and listening, there are some basic considerations that must be observed in order to have a usable product. I've recently been involved in producing a series of oral interviews of older, mostly retired professors from Brigham Young University. Just recently, I was asked to teach a class on oral history at a local conference. As a result of the invitation to teach a class, I did some more in-depth review of the online resources available. What I found was very interesting.
Most of the online resources were directed at oral interviews in conjunction with academic research and what was suggested was distinctively overkill for genealogists. Of course, if the genealogist is seriously considering a formal publication and using the audio interview as a source, the preparation and structure of the interview would be significantly different than a more informal, family history record. I concluded that as a genealogist, I was probably more interested in the stories than the facts of any particular event. I also concluded that I would rely on research and other sources for specific facts about events about a person's life.
I found that nearly all of the resources I consulted online about oral histories were woefully out of date with regard to any references to the recording equipment used. I even found references to maintaining tape recorders. For some time now, I have been using a pocket-sized digital recording device. My current recorder is a small Sony digital recorder that provides superior reproduction quality to the tape recorder I used years ago. I did purchase an inexpensive microphone to add some flexibility to using the recorder. In addition, the files produced are directly downloadable to my computer as MP3 files. My use of the pocket sized digital recorder is a far cry from a formal audio studio approach to recording, but the audio product I capture has good quality and is far easier to accommodate than trying to get the participants into a formal recording studio. I am very impressed with the Story Corps approach to stories, but the logistics of getting a person to a recording booth may outweigh any small advantage of the recording booth method of story preservation.
You can certainly make a valuable oral history recording with a smart phone. But I would suggest that the battery life and quality would be better with a dedicated recorder. But if it means getting an interview or missing the interview, use whatever is available.
Before conducting any oral interview it is absolutely necessary to determine how the recordings are going to be preserved. My current series of interviews are going to be archived in the L. Tom Perry Special Collections Library at Brigham Young University. However, a less formal genealogically related oral interview would necessarily have to be preserved by the family. There are many online sources for storing audio files and making them available to family members, but ultimately, it is important to treat the audio files just as you would any other computer file and migrate the format and maintain the file in a way that it can be preserved for the family.
Because my current series of interviews is being archived in a library, necessarily, I need a formal release from each of the participants. I am not a huge fan of making recordings, even of relatives, without their knowledge and or their consent. By maintaining a slightly more formal setting, I can avoid embarrassing or undesirable content. With some exceptions, the best place to conduct the interview is where the person being interviewed is most comfortable, usually in their own home. It is helpful to have quiet surroundings, but with the new technology this is not absolutely necessary.
Almost uniformly, online instructions for conducting an oral interview include a list of detailed questions and areas of interest to cover with the interviewee. I have found these questions to be stultifying and counterproductive. My philosophy in making oral history files is to allow the participant to tell the stories. I try to ask as few questions as possible and any questions are phrased as suggested topics. I have found that if I ask a specific question involving a date, an event, or the name of a person, the participant will become uncomfortable and the interview is essentially over. Some genealogist become disturbed because the content of the interview is not strictly accurate. If the genealogist feels the need for historical accuracy, they should transcribe the interview and add interlinear comments or footnotes correcting the information provided. The purpose, as I see it, for conducting such interviews is to solicit family stories and to preserve the voice of the participant. Subsequently, I am not all that concerned with accuracy, I am far more interested in the stories.
It is also important not to direct the interview into very personal areas. Let the participant become comfortable with the interview process and then asked general questions allowing the participant to supply the details they feel are important.
If possible, conduct the interview in one to two hour segments or even shorter time periods. Do not be concerned that the participant will repeat stories or events. Most of the time, the second or third retelling brings out details omitted in the first account.
Here are some online resources I suggest for conducting an oral interview and some resources with all types of audio recordings as examples. Remember, as I said previously, many of the suggestions concerning hardware are out of date.
· The Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interviewing Guide – out of date but useful
· Oral History in the Digital Age – Oral History Association
· Oral History Resources – Society of American Archivists
· Voices from the Dust Bowl – Library of Congress