Oral History Project
Oral history is the process of gathering the memories of those who experienced an event first hand through a personal interview. Floods, blizzards and other natural disasters make good subjects for an oral history project. Almost everyone has a memory of their experience in a blizzard, flood, tornado, or other storm. It is important however, to plan the project carefully so that the information is not misunderstood or lost.
The class or group should decide what their topic will be. It is best if you decide on a specific event such as the Blizzard of 1966, or the Flood of 1997 rather than just blizzards in general.
Next you need to decide what you want to know about the blizzard, flood or natural disaster. Who will you interview? What questions will you ask? It is a good idea to ask the same basic questions of everyone, and then add specific questions if the person being interviewed had a special role in the disaster. Make a list of names of people to contact about an interview. You may also want to develop a separate set of questions for officials: the mayor, police chief, fire chief, highway maintenance operators, ambulance or medical personnel.
In addition to developing a set of questions, you need to think about what you are going to do with the interviews. The usual place for historical interviews is an archive. An archive is a place, much like a library, where documents, books, photographs, and other historic materials are stored. Will you place them in the school library? Or perhaps donate the interviews to the local historical society? Maybe you would like to donate a good collection of interviews to one of the major archives in the state (North Dakota State University, University of North Dakota, or the State Historical Society of North Dakota). You need to know this before conducting the interviews because you will need to tell the people you interview what you will be doing with their memories. Contact the archive in advance and ask if they are interested in your Oral History Project.
When you talk to someone casually, you don’t ask for their permission or a signature. But when you interview someone and intend to use those interviews for a research project or preserve as historical records, you need to have their permission and a signature on paper. The permission form should remain with the interview and go to the institution you have chosen for the repository. If you know that you will be giving the interviews to a specific place, contact the director of that archive in advance to see if they have permission forms they prefer you to use.
Once your plan is in place (topic, list of names, permission forms, questions) contact the people on your list and ask politely if they remember the event of your topic. If they answer yes, then ask if they would participate in an Oral History Project and an interview. If the answer is yes, then offer to submit the questions to the person in advance. This may help to start the memory process. Set a date, time, and place that is convenient for the interviewee (the person you are interviewing).
After the interview, send the person a handwritten note thanking him/her for the time and effort they made in sharing the memories with you.
When you go to the interview, dress nicely, use your best manners, and thank the person for their time. Be sure to explain fully what your project is about and where the interviews will be stored when they are completed.
In addition to questions about the event, you will ask for the interviewee’s full name (even if you know it already), birth date, and record the location of the interview (town, state, and address or building), and job title if you are interviewing an official.
You can take notes or use a recording device. If you use a tape recorder with a battery, be sure to test the battery before you go and take spare batteries with you. It is best to use both notes and a recording device. If you use a video recording, be sure that your interviewee knows ahead of time that the interview will be video-recorded. Some may prefer only a voice recording.
Remember to send your thank-you note the next day!
Transcribe the interview by typing the interviewee’s words and your questions exactly as spoken and in the order in which it happened. It is a good idea to put both the tape recording (if you have one) and the typed interview in the archive together.
Use these models of the various forms you will need for your plan, interview, and permission form. Modify these as necessary for your project.
Caution: Remember that some of these events were life-changing for the people you interview. You might bring someone to tears or anger. Wait patiently and sympathetically for the person to compose himself/herself. The interviewee may refuse to answer a question. That is ok, and you may politely ask why they refuse, but then go on to something else.
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