The Community Oral History Toolkit

oral history

When it comes to methods and processes, I am a fan of lots of short focused articles that present multiple perspectives.  For example, the Small Museum Toolkit consists of six short topical volumes on a range of museum issues from leadership to exhibits and all points between.  The Toolkit is particularly helpful because each volume chapter introduces the essence to a specific area but also points to resources for further research and study.  I find such Toolkits, like the Technical Leaflets in each issue of History News from the American Association of State and Local History, essential authoritative introductions on a range of practices, particularly for those of us in smaller institutions who wear many hats.

With this perspective in mind, I anxiously awaited the release of the Community Oral History Toolkit written by Nancy MacKay, Mary Kay Quinlan, and Barbara W. Sommer, published this spring by Left Coast Press.  The Toolkit is composed of five 150-page volumes.

Oral history projects are certainly nothing new but they continue to move more fully to center stage in community cultural heritage projects.  For example, consider the Power of Story theme of the recent American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting in Baltimore.  A fundamental knowledge of oral history process is essential particularly for the cultural heritage professional in a small museum environment.


1998 photo from coffee finca in Los Naranjos Honduras of Billy Pilgrim (?) (right) who worked with James Ford at Poverty Point in 1950s.

From my own archaeological experience, I can recall many occasions when collecting oral history’s would have been helpful.  For example, during my tenure in the 1990s as the Station Archaeologist at the Poverty Point site in Northeast Louisiana, I came into contact with at least three individuals who worked on field crews directed by James Ford in the early 1950s during the first excavations at this premier prehistoric earthwork complex.  Many of the activities from this period at Poverty Point, now under consideration as a World Heritage Site, are based on third-hand here-say.  One of the individuals who worked with Ford I met in a completely chance encounter while visiting a coffee finca in Honduras.  This Central American connection (above photo) is a story in itself.  I regret that the few notes I scribbled in my journal in 1998 were lost during the trip.  Today, I am not even certain of the gentleman’s name. But his memory of the events that had occurred 45 years earlier were remarkably intact.

Based on my past experiences coupled with current projects at the C.H. Nash Museum, The Community Oral History Toolkit is a welcome resource.  The five volumes include:

  • Introduction to Community Oral History – In eight chapters the authors offer summary introductions on a range of topics necessary to consider before planning an oral history project.  The topics include simply defining oral history, an outline of basic steps in an oral history project, and ethical considerations.  The volume also introduces ten best practices in oral history projects that are focus of each chapter throughout the Toolkit. The volume includes a 20-page appendix of sample forms to help conceptualize the project, obtain interviewee agreement and more.  A 15-page guide for resources, most of which are online, complete the volume.
  • Planning a Community History Project – Seven chapters detail several of the processes introduced in the first volume.  The topics include project design, equipment needs, and project funding.  Again, the appendices are important assets to the volume.  For example, a list of recording equipment standards will prove helpful to the novice and more experienced practitioner who need a refresher in best practices.
  • Managing a Community Oral History Project – This volume covers many of the same topics as the previous volume but moves from planning to implementation.  There is a bit of overlap between the two volumes that is the only real short-coming I found in the Toolkit.  As with the preceding volumes, the discussion is based in case studies with sample forms and links to further resources.
  • Interviewing in Community Oral History – Although tempting to start with this volume as the meat of the matter, the strength of the Toolkit is the sequential presentation in the volumes.  That is, a review and understanding of the first three volumes in the Toolkit inform on the actual interview process from the questions asked and topics discussed to selecting the interviewees and interviewers.  Consistent with the entire Toolkit this volume includes best practices such as timeframe for interviews, checking recording quality, and arranging for transcriptions.
  • After the Interview in Community Oral History – This volume builds directly on the previous four to complete a solid conceptual framework for oral history projects.  This final volume in the Toolkit covers topics such as processing the interviews, record keeping, and choices in the transcription.   The volume also details decisions that must be made around cataloging, storage, access, and interview preservation.  A 20-page volume chapter discusses alternative methods for the public presentation of the oral history interviews.

The Community Oral History Toolkit is a comprehensive introduction to the field.  In any research focus, one could fill bookshelves with volumes on the subject.  However, for those working, volunteering, or studying in the cultural heritage field the Toolkit provides a solid foundation on which to conduct oral history projects.  I particularly like the Toolkit’s staged or sequential approach.  As someone who has written my share of institutional review board proposals for interviews and gone on to conduct that research, I intend to use the Toolkit as the foundation for future projects.  I am confident in so doing, I will be able to assure that the oral history interviews will better address the project goals.  I am also confident that with better planning, the interviews will not end up only in file drawers, but will be used to maximize their role in cultural heritage preservation and presentation.

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