Oral History Institute

Creating a timeless gift of wisdom

  • What is an oral history?

    The human brain is the most sophisticated and complex entity in existence. Compared to the biggest and fastest computer man has created, the human brain wins hands down. Scientists still haven't figured out how a couple of pounds of gray matter can store and recall so much and so quickly. Computers have one important edge: if you back up the information before it crashes, the information can live forever. The oral history interview is the closest thing man has to a back-up system. It's as simple as asking someone to sit down, relax and start talking about his or her life so far. Humans have been doing this for thousands of years, but the information had to be restored in the minds and memories of those who listened to the life story. After several generations, much of what the original storyteller said would vanish or change forms. Today's audio and video recorders enable one generation to pass along the detailed life story intact -- in the voice of the storyteller.
  • Why should I arrange an oral history?

    In time, everyone leaves the world as we know it. The oral history interview allows future generations to learn from and understand the wisdom and circumstances of common ancestors -- long after those ancestors have passed away. This site exists to encourage everyone to arrange for oral history interviews of their beloved elders and then preserve the sounds, images and stories for the children of tomorrow. Consider it a "back up" that could enhance others' lives for centuries or longer.
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  • Oral History Options

    Once you agree that arranging for an oral history of someone you love is one of the greatest gifts you can give to the world of today tomorrow, what are your options? 1. Do a little preparatory homework, gather the minimum audio or video equipment necessary, secure a comfortable and quiet setting and prompt the person to talk. You'll find tips and resources on this site. Advantages: It doesn't cost much to do it yourself. You may already have a good relationship with the person. You will have an idea of many of the topics you hope the person will cover. Disadvantages: You are limited by the quality of the technical equipment and know-how. There may be things the person will not feel comfortable telling to a family member. Your own knowledge can sometimes prevent you from probing in certain areas -- areas you wouldn't have thought applied. 2. Have a trusted friend conduct the interview -- someone who is not close to the person they'll interview. Advantages: Your loved one is likely to volunteer much more information to a stranger that he or she would to a family member. The interviewer will be open to all kinds of information and may ask things that you wouldn't have thought to ask. It's inexpensive. Disadvantages: The same technical problems mentioned above may occur. You cannot control the direction that the interviewer will take, which could result him or her not covering certain topics. 3. Hire a professional to conduct the oral history interview. Advantages: You can be confident that the technical aspects will ensure a high-quality and long-lasting product. The skilled and experienced professional will elicit stories and recollections you never imagined your loved one was capable of expressing, and those stories will come to life in the minds of viewers and listeners long into the future. The professional will better control the environment and will know how to bond personally with your loved one. Your loved one will offer more details to someone who clearly hasn't heard the stories before and has no reason to be judgmental. The professional will be better at remaining quiet and listening. He or she will be more likely to help your loved one drift into what oral historians call "the trance" -- a mental state in which the person seems to journey to the past and remain there. The professional knows to say nothing that could bring your loved one out of that trance. Disadvantages: It will cost a lot more than if you do it yourself or have a friend conduct the interviewer. The audio and video equipment will be of the highest quality and, hence, cost more. You can expect to pay hundreds of dollars for the actual interview and a thousand dollars or more for the post-production -- the creation of the audio or video DVDs. If you wish to include family photographs, old films or videotape, documents, exteriors of important places the person lived or work or even comments from other people, the cost can be very high. Here's what one oral historian told me: "People are willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars for a funeral service and a burial plot. If they invested half of that amount in an oral history interview before their loved one dies, they would have a memorial that lasts forever."
  • If you’re ready to participate . . .

    Once you agree that arranging for an oral history of someone you love is one of the greatest gifts you can give to the world of today tomorrow, what are your options? There are three: you can conduct the oral history of your loved one yourself, you can ask a friend to do it for you or you can hire a professional. All three are good choices as long as the interviewer follows some simple, but strict, guidelines.
  • Do it yourself: advantages and disadvantages

    Do a little preparatory homework, gather the minimum audio or video equipment necessary, secure a comfortable and quiet setting and prompt the person to talk. You'll find tips and resources on this site. Advantages: It doesn't cost much to do it yourself. You may already have a good relationship with the person. You will have an idea of many of the topics you hope the person will cover. Disadvantages: You are limited by the quality of the technical equipment and know-how. There may be things the person will not feel comfortable telling to a family member. Your own knowledge can sometimes prevent you from probing in certain areas -- areas you wouldn't have thought applied.
  • Recruit a friend: advantages and disadvantages

    Have a trusted friend conduct the interview -- someone who is not close to the person they'll interview. Advantages: Your loved one is likely to volunteer much more information to a stranger that he or she would to a family member. The interviewer will be open to all kinds of information and may ask things that you wouldn't have thought to ask. It's inexpensive. Disadvantages: The same technical problems mentioned above may occur. You cannot control the direction that the interviewer will take, which could result him or her not covering certain topics.
  • Hire a professional oral historian: advantages and disadvantages

    Hire a professional to conduct the oral history interview. Be sure to check on the person's experience and insist on seeing samples of his or her completed work. Advantages: You can be confident that the technical aspects will ensure a high-quality and long-lasting product. The skilled and experienced professional will elicit stories and recollections you never imagined your loved one was capable of expressing, and those stories will come to life in the minds of viewers and listeners long into the future. The professional will better control the environment and will know how to bond personally with your loved one. Your loved one will offer more details to someone who clearly hasn't heard the stories before and has no reason to be judgmental. The professional will be better at remaining quiet and listening. He or she will be more likely to help your loved one drift into what oral historians call "the trance" -- a mental state in which the person seems to journey to the past and remain there. The professional knows to say nothing that could bring your loved one out of that trance. Disadvantages: It will cost a lot more than if you do it yourself or have a friend conduct the interviewer. The audio and video equipment will be of the highest quality and, hence, cost more. You can expect to pay hundreds of dollars for the actual interview and a thousand dollars or more for the post-production -- the creation of the audio or video DVDs. If you wish to include family photographs, old films or videotape, documents, exteriors of important places the person lived or work or even comments from other people, the cost can be very high. Here's what one oral historian told me: "People are willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars for a funeral service and a burial plot. If they invested half of that amount in an oral history interview before their loved one dies, they would have a memorial that lasts forever."
  • Resources, tips and Tools

The Hideous Dachshund

Posted by donraymedia on March 28, 2014

donraymedia:

Oral histories provide not only details, but emotions that remain with people the rest of their lives. This beautifully written, from-the-heart blog entry that my friend Fran Tunno wrote drives this message home. It’s some of the best writing I’ve ever encountered. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Originally posted on At Fran's Table:

Image I have now been in this apartment for about 29 days. It’s hard to remember exact numbers because I was between bouts of near-vomiting when I moved, but that’s pretty close. Yet, I am still not completely unpacked and my bedroom looks like it belongs to someone on “Hoarders.” Does it bother me? No, because a hideous dachshund taught me a valuable lesson in my younger days that I’ve not forgotten. Of course, this story involves my mother.

Although my mom embarrassed me daily during my childhood with things like girdle displays, dandelion picking and her Italian accent (to name a few) we almost never fought. I was more a mediator, like my dad. Actually, my father was a mediator poised for sainthood. His interactions with my mother left him at a level of martyrdom I couldn’t begin to approach. But I learned to hide my eye-rolling and imitations of…

View original 1,336 more words

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Delmar Watson’s stories live on.

Posted by donraymedia on June 17, 2009

When Delmar Watson died in October of last year, he left behind a collection of 20th century news photographs — mostly about people and events in Southern California. He and his five photojournalist brothers made most of the photos, but their uncle, pioneer news photographer George R. Watson contributed thousands of them (see “He Made the News Click” in an earlier posting). The collection grew even larger when other “photogs” donated or willed their collections. Read the rest of this entry »

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“Bike saved my life!” An oral history story that will live on for generations.

Posted by donraymedia on June 11, 2009


When Doris Tidrick was nine, an infected blister on her foot led to a life-threatening case of osteomyelitis. In 1996 — a year before she died, Doris (Tidrick) Quinn told the details of her brush with death in an oral history her children arranged. They had heard the story before, but it took a stranger’s curiosity and professionalism to reel in the compelling details of how a loving father in the depths of the Great Depression used the promise of a brand new bicycle to infuse Doris with the desire to fight for her life.
Is there someone in your life with a library of wisdom and stories that could inspire the yet unborn children of the future?
Look for the resources on this blog — resources that may empower you to conduct or arrange for an oral history video of your loved one.

Posted in Stories based upon oral history-style interviews | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

He made the news click

Posted by donraymedia on May 17, 2009

An oral history interview that became a magazine article

(First published in Westways, February, 1977)

By Don Ray

George Watson never anticipated  being regarded as a historian. Photography was his career, hobby and best friend. From 1910, when his first news photograph was published, until her retired during World War II, George’s only concern was that of capturing news.

George R. Watson when he shot for the Los Angeles Times.

George R. Watson when he shot for the Los Angeles Times.

Although his photographs lost their news value only days after he shot them, their historical value continues to appreciate with each passing generation. The colorful history of twentieth-century Southern California has been preserved in Watson’s collection of news photographs, numbering in the thousands, taken by him and his six nephews, all photojournalists.

Aside from being the dean of Southern California news photographers, the octogenarian’s credits included the invention of the first microfilm machine, the first aerial news photographs of Los Angeles, the first picture ever transmitted over telephone wires and the invention of a prototype of the Pako dryer, a print-drying machine used today in almost every photography lab.

He also founded and was the first president of the Los Angeles Press Photographers Association, an organization that continues to promote respect and dignity among “photogs.”

George Railton Watson befriended photography more than seventy-six years ago when his father, and amateur photographer, bought him a one-dollar Brownie camera for his eighth birthday. The boy developed and printed his first picture, a shot of the Colorado state capitol, and proudly displayed it to the proprietor of the local Eastman Kodak Company agency.

The dealer immediately placed the picture in his shop window above a sign that read, “If an eight-year-old boy can

George Watson shortly before he died in 1977.

George Watson shortly before he died in 1977.

take a picture like this, why can’t you?” When the family moved to Los Angeles a year later, the young lensman built his own darkroom out of a dry-goods box, using a coal oil lantern for a red light.

“It’s a wonder I didn’t asphyxiate myself,” George recalls. “I’d come out sweatin’ like the devil, but I’d have my prints.”

After spending most of his teens in the Pacific Northwest, George returned to Los Angeles in 1917. Experience gained taking pictures for the Portland Journals was all he needed to land a job with the Los Angeles Times as their second field photographer. In his twelve years with the Times, he witnessed and photographed nearly every major news story — every disaster, murder, visiting king, queen and president.

He rubbed elbows with the silent-screen stars, sports greats, explorers, adventurers and criminals who made the news.

George learned quickly that working for the press would not always be pleasant. The first time he was assigned to photograph a murder scene he had an experience that nearly sent him looking for another profession. The reporter with whom he worked asked him to get a few shots of a man who was slain by police after he killed his wife. Read the rest of this entry »

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Cues to get them talking

Posted by donraymedia on May 16, 2009

Some sure-fire topics for your oral history interview

(As sidebar to “So I says to Howard Hughes…” in Los Angeles Magazine, October 1982.)

Okay. So you’re not an interviewer. That doesn’t mean you have to hide from Aunt Minnie. Here are 10 questions that some of Southern California’s sharpest oral historians provided. They swear that these questions will get Mama, Uncle Irv or Gramps talking so much that you’ll feel like Mike Wallace. Read the rest of this entry »

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The library is on fire

Posted by donraymedia on May 16, 2009

Time doesn’t have to erase wisdom and memories.

By Don Ray

It’s a phrase I’ll never forget. It was in the first oral history class I took back in 1975 that the instructor, historian David L. Clark, urged us all to sit down with Grandma and Grandpa and record them telling the stories of their lives.

“It’s like a library that’s burning down,” he said. “You have to move fast.”

My own grandmother had died earlier that year — she was the last of my grandparents to die — so I understood the opportunity that I had missed. Indeed, the library was gone. Twenty-two years later, when my mother made the decision to spend her remaining time in home hospice, I made good on my vow to capture on videotape the stories that my sister and I had heard in bits and pieces over the years.

My mother always had a way of talking “baby talk” if I was in her presence when she talk to someone else about me, so

Doris (Tidrick) Quinn 1923-1997

Doris (Tidrick) Quinn 1923-1997

I arranged a “head fake” when it came time to capture her recollections on videotape. One of my former students, David Ritchie, conducted the oral history interview — I operated the camera. Immediately before David began prompting her to talk, I put on big headphones and made it clear to my mother that I would be listening to my favorite Latin music.

“Don’t even bother talking to me,” I warned her. “I won’t be able to hear a thing.”

The plan worked. David listened to her for more than two hours there in the comfort of her apartment in Burbank, Calif. Only once was it clear that she was saying something about me. She gave me that smile as she looked my way. When I didn’t respond at all, she got the message and never looked my way again.

I decided to not watch the interview right away. Less than two years later, the emphysema squeezed the last of the breath out of her. It would be another year before I was ready to watch the video and listen, for the first time, to what she told David during the interview. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Oral history tips and techniques, Stories about oral histories | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

“So I says to Howard Hughes…”

Posted by donraymedia on May 16, 2009

The techno-rebirth of the ancient tradition of story telling.

By Don Ray

(Originally published in Los Angeles Magazine in October, 1982)

Pauline Clark had been waiting, alone and anxious, for this moment. Her new gas stove had just been installed. She reached down for the porcelain-covered handle and gave it a cautious turn to the right. First nothing happened. Then she heard a low rumble that grew louder and louder—as if a freight train were rounding the corner from the living room and heading straight for the kitchen. Things began to shake. Knickknacks and cooking utensils jumped from the wall and crashed down onto the counter. Pauline tried to run but couldn’t. The whole room was shifting back and forth.

It was March 10, 1933. Meanwhile, Pauline’s Husband was trapped in another room. Read the rest of this entry »

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