Oral History Part 1: Procrastinate and lose memories!

One of the key components to our Community-Driven Archives project is oral history collection. Broadly speaking, this means collection methods, tools, and training. Oral histories are used to preserve memories and act as personal narratives showing both struggle and success as part of the historical record. Our “Archivist in a Backpack” kits contain the items necessary for accomplishing this goal. However, the most important factors in successful oral history capture are a communicative interviewee and an engaged interviewer. 

CDA Project Documentarian and Oral Historian, B. Bernetiae Reed, offers some thoughts on gathering oral histories.

Don’t wait! Ask your questions now. If you procrastinate that opportunity can pass by and that story, that connection, or that moment be gone forever! Pull out your recorder during special moments. Seek that person with things you want to know or that person with memories you want to capture. Your actions allow these words to be heard by future audiences! The audio and video files can be kept as family mementos or be placed in archival collections, adding to the body of knowledge or possibly utilized in an exhibit.

Although oral history interviews typically refer to full life stories, often a partial record is obtained with a topical focus in mind, i.e. a historical event or a geographic location. Let curiosity and active listening guide you. What is important to you now? What could be important to others in the future?

Ronney Stevens from SAAACAM in San Antonio TX shares a memory of going to the Carver Library as a child.

We are fortunate to have everyday audio and video recording tools on our cell phones. These weren’t available a few decades ago. So go for it! Know that no two oral histories are the same and there is no need to let perfection be the enemy to capturing something. The questions you ask and the relationship you have to the interviewee are unique and will help create a one-of-a-kind piece of history.

Start with those family stories that you have grown up hearing, approach acquaintances with knowledge you have always wanted to know, connect with community members who have recollections that need to be preserved, and then go on from there.

As a budding oral historian, just get started!

We post every week on different topics but if there is something you’d like to see, let us know either in the comments or email Claire our Community Outreach Coordinator: clairela@live.unc.edu. Please check the CDA website for ­­more resources and guides.

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