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

Posts Tagged ‘Don Ray’s family’

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 »

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