Oral History

woman and man discussing photos

Queens Memory Director Natalie Milbrodt discusses photos to be scanned after interviewing Frank Carrado at a Long Island City community history event. Photo credit: Cassia Campbell

CTL’s newest team member, Lori Wallach, acts as a liaison to Queens Memory, an online digital archive that documents the history and diversity of Queens through oral histories, photos and other archival records. It is an ongoing collaboration between Queens Library and Queens College. Lori is available to consult with faculty members who are interested in incorporating these types of resources into their classes or research. Funding for her position at CTL is provided by the Citi Center for Culture.

Are you contemplating adding an oral history component to a course or research project? Learning about the past through the memories of those who experienced it firsthand can be a rewarding experience for students; it also has the potential to add previously unknown or marginalized perspectives to the historic record.

Oral histories differ from journalistic interviews in that the interviewer does not have a set of fixed questions designed to elicit information on a narrow topic. Rather, the best oral histories capture the subject’s memories and opinions in his or her own voice, resulting in a uniquely narrated visit to the past.

Bronx street scenePlanning a series of oral history interviews around a theme can produce a well-rounded set of perspectives on one topic, be it a specific event, a political movement, or changes in a neighborhood over the course of time. Once you have decided on a theme for your interviews, you may want to consult with local civic associations, alumni groups or cultural and religious organizations to find and reach out to likely candidates.

Before embarking on an oral history project, check to see if IRB clearance is needed, by consulting the documentation on the website of QC’s Office of Regulatory Compliance; CUNY’s Human Research Protection Program also provides guidance in its document, When is CUNY HRPP or IRB Review Required?, which includes oral history projects as an example.

books and hand microphonePre-interview preparation: As you make arrangements to meet your interview subjects, be sure to build in a little time for preparation. It’s a good idea to send interviewees a pre-interview survey and a list of possible topics for discussion, to help jog their memories and allow them to think about what they’d like to include. The completed survey should be returned to the interviewer before the session takes place. At the same time, the interviewer should do some background research on the relevant time period or event to be discussed, and even the interviewee if s/he is a well-known figure.

For Queens Memory, we send our subjects a standardized consent form to review, which we ask them to sign once the interviews are complete. This form clarifies that subjects give us permission to share their interviews publicly, without compensation, but that they retain copyright to their material.

For examples of these types of forms, see Queens Memory’s downloadable Pre-Interview Survey and  Consent Forms.

Reel-to-reel-tape-recorder-and-playerEquipment: Handheld digital audio recorders are the current standard for oral history interviews. Some good, basic models include the Zoom H2n and Tascam DR-22WL. Ideally, your recorder should be set up on a tripod between the interviewer and subject, in an unobtrusive spot. A digital camera or high-quality smartphone camera is also necessary to take a picture of your subject at the time of the interview.

Conducting the interview – a few tips:

  • Start every recording by stating the names of the interviewer and interviewee, the date, and the location of the interview.
  • Let the interview flow from topic to topic naturally, with minimal intervention. Use open-ended questions to help stimulate memories and draw the subject out; use specific questions to clarify details or redirect when the conversation has strayed off-topic.
  • Ask interviewees if they have any photos, documents or other materials related to their memories that they would like to share. These items, which can be scanned and returned to them, help give context and visual interest to the recorded interviews.
  • Take the interviewee’s photo either before or after your recording session.
  • Remember to get a signed consent form before concluding your visit; leave one copy with the interviewee and keep one for your records.

Post-interview: Save your audio file promptly in a high-quality, non-proprietary format such as WAV; most digital recorders use this standard by default. This will be your master copy, and should be backed up in Google Drive or another type of cloud storage for safekeeping. (Be aware, however, of who has permission to access your files on the cloud.) You’ll then need to use sound-editing software (for example, Adobe Audition or open-source Audacity) to review your recording and edit it for excess noise, and to cut short clips if you wish to post them online. Since WAV files are very large, you should convert your clips to MP3 format for online use.

Rather than generating word-for-word transcripts of interviews, many oral historians create outlines that summarize the main topics covered, along with time markers to provide easy access for future researchers. It’s important to include details such as proper names of people and places, dates, locations and events that can be easily searched. View a sample of a Queens Memory timecode outline with interview subject Carol Lee Whiting.

After the interview, remember to send your interviewee a thank-you note, along with a CD recording of the interview and digital copies of any items s/he may have lent you for scanning, along with the physical materials themselves.

If you have an oral history project in mind and need some advice, feel free to contact Queens Memory Outreach Coordinator Lori Wallach at lwallach@qc.cuny.edu.

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