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How to > Oral historians
 

The Basics

Evoca Express will change the way oral history is done

Evoca Express enables oral historians to:

  • Record and store an oral history project in one place.
  • Preserve existing recordings in digital format.
  • Search audio recordings - the results will actually pinpoint the word you are looking for!
  • Transcribe interviews
  • Translate interviews
  • Spread histories around the world!

What is oral history?

Oral history is the collection and preservation of memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews. These interviews are then made available to the world - verbatim - for research, reinterpretation, publication, museum exhibitions, radio commentary, dramatization, and more.

By adding an ever wider range of voices to the story, oral history does not simplify the historical narrative, but makes it more complex - and more interesting. This democratic impulse has convinced many a oral historian that it's "time to hand the mike to the people."

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What is NOT oral history?

Random covert taping, such as President Richard Nixon's covert recording of his White House conversations, is NOT oral history. Soundbytes from journalists are not oral history. Neither are recorded speeches, wiretapping, or personal audio diaries.

Basically, anything that does not involve dialogue between interviewer and interviewee, anything that is not the whole story, that is not told willingly, or that is not presented verbatim . . . is not oral history.

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Mr. Oral History

Don Ritchie is our guru, our spine, our Mr. Oral History who has provided the structure and phrasing for our quick guide. Don's the associate historian in the Senate Historical Office and holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Maryland. He's written several books on oral history, led numerous oral history workshops, and chaired the Organization of American Historians' committee on research and access to historical documentation. He's the former president of the Oral History Association and of Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic region, and he's served on the council of the American Historical Association and the board of the Society for History in the Federal Government. Whew! You see why he's our man, right?

Needless to say, Evoca Express' guide to oral history merely skims the surface of all that is oral history. If you want to dive deeper, check out Don's book: Doing Oral History.

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Setting Up Your Oral History Project

Define goals

What is the purpose of your project? What sort of "living history" do you want to record and why? You should aim to collect information that is not available anywhere else.

Your goals will determine your budget, the list of people to interview, and your style of questioning. But keep in mind that the beauty of oral history is that you can't control it. One person's story might lead you to interview someone else you never thought of, or it might even change the focus of your original objective. Your oral history project should be an exploration.

Example: What were your recollections of what happened when the factories in your city shut down?

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Do your research!

There is no such thing as too much research! It's ultra important to the success of your interview. It's the only way you'll know what questions to ask. It's a sure way to develop a rapport with your interviewee (let's call him "Sam). It's also a great way to help move the interview if Sam begins groping around for names or dates, interrupting his flow of thought and the flow of the interview.

When preparing a budget, expect to do about 10 hours of research for every 1 hour of interview. Know absolutely everything you can about the outline of Sam's life - his family, community, jobs, successes, and failures - so that all he has to do is fill in the details. Read everything you can about the background of Sam's life - family histories, histories of the town or institution, histories of events or wars or eras that Sam lived through. Back issues of newspapers and magazines and, of course, the Internet are great resources.

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Equipment

You're in luck. You don't need much:

  • If you are on the go, we suggest you have a  digital recording device and a microphone. Alternatively, if you have access to a computer with a high-speed connection, you can record directly into your Evoca Express account using the EvocaMic™ and your PC computer.

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Setting the mood

Almost anywhere that is quiet is the perfect setting for your interview. Avoid children, spouses, secretaries, ringing phones, barking dogs, open windows, busy streets, loud air conditioners, or music. You need quiet for 3 reasons:

  • You don't want to distract the person being interviewed.
  • You don't want extra noise picked up on the recorder. Your goal is capture voice - clear, unobstructed voice.
  • You want this to be an intimate session - where Sam can speak freely and where you can listen carefully.

You might consider an office setting, but don't let your interviewee sit at a desk or behind a table. We suggest pulling two chairs next to each other or asking to sit around a table. Another good idea is to have Sam come to you. This way, you'll have more control of the interview atmosphere, equipment, cameras, or anything else that you plan to use.

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Legal matters

Federal Copyright laws automatically grant copyright to anyone whose words and ideas are recorded for up to 50 years after that person's death. This means that after you record "Sam", he automatically has legal rights to his words. And you need his permission to publish anything he's said.

To avoid any problems down the road, you should explain your goals and what you would like to do with the interview way beforehand. You should also collect what is called a "deed of gift" before conducting the interview. A deed of gift says who owns the copyright in the interview and what can be done with it. Here's a few different options:

  • Sam has all rights to the interview and has complete control over how the interview is used. (This can get very complicated, so try to avoid it.)
  • Sam gives rights over to you, but might ask that you don't release certain parts or that certain parts right away . . . or ever.
  • Sam gives all rights to you. (Fabulous.)
  • Sam gives rights to the public domain. We love this one. This usually means that part of the project will be available over the Internet. (Even more fabulous.)

For sample legal release form, click here.

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Conducting Your Interview

Role of interviewer and interviewee

You should think of your relationship with the interviewee ("Sam") as the foundational partnership of oral history. You must help Sam be forthcoming and accurate with his story. You might have to provide names, dates, and other information to keep the dialogue rolling. Your biggest task is to make Sam comfortable.

Depending on your type of project, you might need to pay your interviewee - be sure to decide and discuss payment in advance!

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Questions 101

Here's a few pointers about preparing your questions:

  • It's always better to have too many than too few. Be prepared for Sam to answer most of your questions without you even having to ask.
  • People think chronologically, so approach "topical" questions within a chronological framework.
  • Avoid questions with yes or no answers.
  • Questions provoking broad, long, more interpretive answers are always the best.

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How long should and interview last?

About an hour. If your hour is up and you still have questions left, schedule another interview.

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Recorder goes HERE

  • If you are using a digital recorder place it where you can see it - you want to know if it stops running.
  • But it should also be out of Sam's direct line of vision so that it doesn't distract him.
  • Also, Never ever hide the recorder. It's crucial to maintain an atmosphere of trust and confidence in order for Sam to feel comfortable sharing his story with you.

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Avoiding "Off the Record"

An oral history interview is not like a journalistic interview, so there is very little purpose for hearing things "off the record." You should be polite, but firm, and ask that the interview not be interrupted.

But it's generally ok to pause the recording if Sam wants to explain why he is hesitant about a certain question. Here, you might want to turn of the recording, hear the problem, offer a bit of counsel and reassurance, then carry on.

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The classy conclusion

  • Look for a natural "wrap-up" question - something that allows Sam to reflect back, to make comparisons between then and now, to draw conclusions about major events, or to look ahead into the future.
  • The good ole, "is there anything else that you wanted to discuss," is never a bad idea either.
  • You can't just run out the door with someone's life story, emotional reflections, and candid observations in your hot little hands. The interview might have been a very emotional experience for Sam. So, spend some time - with the recorder off - just visiting.
  • Remind Sam what you plan to do with the interview, how it will be processed, and where it will be held.
  • Be sure to let him know how important this interview will be to the oral history project, and how his story will enrich the world.

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Evoca Express + Your Oral History Project

Why oral histories NEED to available on the Internet

  • Given the democratic impulses of the oral history movement, it only follows that oral historians take advantage of the most universal and cost-effective means of mass communication ever devised.
  • The Internet helps return oral histories to the community, while expanding the boundaries and definition of community.
  • In terms of research, when an interview is available on the web, it will usually record more visitors in a single month than in all the years it sat on an archive shelve combined.
  • The fact of the matter is that the younger generation often prefer to surf the web than to explore the library - it's quicker. And it's also attractive to people who cannot afford to travel around visiting archives.
  • If projects are not eventually available on the internet, they run the risk of being ignored by the next generation of researchers.

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6 easy steps to record, store, and share

  1. Set up. Go to "My Account" and create an group specifically for your oral histories. You'll need to specify if you want this history to be public - i.e. available to the entire world (hopefully so).
  2. Record. Capture your interview with EvocaMic™ or your voice recorder. If you use your voice recorder, click the "upload a recording" link on your home page.
  3. Organize. Tag your recording with key words that capture the essence of your story
  4. Store. Goodbye inaccessible archives, hello Evoca Express! "Shelve" your archives in our ultra-accessible database. No more traveling, no more wadding through bulky files. Store your oral histories with Evoca Express and let the world listen!
  5. Share. Go to "My Account" and create a group for your oral history. Invite other people to listen or make your group public so all the world can profit from your interviews. The world will be enriched by each history that share.

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The best search ever - for real

  • Fumbling through vague indexes, trying to extract meaning from summaries, and fast-forwarding/rewinding to find a particular section in an interview are time-consuming tortures of the past.
  • With Evoca Express, you just type a word into our search box, and in a matter of seconds, we'll bring you to exactly where that word is spoken in an interview.
  • The new search option allows researches to tap into the full richness of the oral history tradition.
  • Instantaneously listen to the meaningful voices - with meaning derived not only from the words uttered, but from all the nuances of pace, pitch, and performance.

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Transcribe and Translate

Need a transcription of your interview? For $1.00 per minute of recording, we'll transcribe your interview and deliver it to you via within 24 hours. Just upload your recording into "My Recordings" and click "transcribe." Our transcriptions are human-powered. No software is used for our transcription or translation services. We also translate into 6 languages!  More...

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Oral historians

The Basics

Setting Up Your Oral History Project

Conducting Your Interview

Evoca Express + Your Oral History Project

 

How to Use Evoca Express