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Oral History Projects

Summary of presentation at National Archives Genealogy Fair 2012
By Christine Foster Meloni

Methods, Means, and Best Practices for Oral History Projects
Presenter: Guha Shankar, Folklife Specialist, Research and Programs, American Folklife Archives at the Library of Congress

While this presentation focused on conducting live interviews, I think much of the ideas can also be utilized for paper questionnaires.

Primary points of Dr. Shankar’s presentation.

Remember: “Technology is not your friend but it doesn’t have to kill you.”

He talked about “cultural documentation projects.” When you are interviewing someone, try to find “webs of interest.” And don’t forget to get a consent form!

Keep in mind that you are mediating between the interviewee and the audience.

Cultural Documentation: Methods and Techniques

  • You must begin with a project plan.
  • What is your final product? A website perhaps?
  • Find a partner or partners at the beginning of your project.
  • What do they want?
  • What will they do with it?
  • Who will be the caretaker of your materials? They need to get out into the world. Think of long-term storage.
  • Check what others have done in your specific area of focus.
  • Find collaborators. Oral history is really too big for one person. You must focus on the interview process. That is your role. Who will do the technical things? Will you need an audio technician? Or someone to take notes?
  • Keep your project small. Keep it focused. Don’t fall down the rabbit hole!
  • Remember that the best recording equipment available today is Paper and Pencil!
  • Go to this website for an overview of recording materials:
  • Will your product be sustainable in the future? CDs and DVDs, for example, will not last so they should be considered only as temporary carriers. Can your partner sustain your product?
  • When interviewing, you should have a really good external microphone. An internal one will pick up too much unwanted noise.
  • Be sure to document at the beginning and at the end of a recording who, when, where, and why.
  • Rule of thumb: one hour of recording = four to six hours of transcription
  • Redundancy is crucial. Don’t have your product available in only one place.

The presenter did not distribute a handout.

To make up for the lack of a handout, I found the following on the website of The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress at