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Initiate an Oral History Program

What is it? An oral history program collects and shares the stories and memories of community members.  Students, youth, or other volunteers, are trained in oral history methods, such as interviewing and operating an audio recorder.  Trained interviewers, project leaders and community partners help identify residents with important experiences to share, or who are familiar with the history of the neighborhood. The volunteers meet with, and interview, the targeted individuals. The stories and memories are captured in audio, print, and sometimes video formats.  Once collected and transcribed, the interviews are collected and archived for all to hear, often in a local library.  A project can focus on a specific issue or sub-group.  For communities, such programs offer a number of benefits  running from the development of new skills in volunteers, improved historical knowledge and appreciation, enhanced student learning, the creation of intergenerational connections, and the preservation of local cultural heritage and associated tourism projects, In many instances, oral history projects result in some form of public presentation, to share the stories collected, celebrate the persons interviewed, and to identify future project possibilities.

How has it been used? The Roanoke Virginia Public Library has been collecting oral histories since 2006 as part of the Oral History Initiative.  Two specific programs are included in this initiative, the Veterans History Project and the Neighborhoods History Project.  The Veterans History Project is focused on the experiences of veterans from wars dating back to World War 2.  The Neighborhoods History Project examines how city neighborhoods have changed over the years.  By learning more about how neighborhoods used to be and comparing it with the present day situation, the community can celebrate its history and also better understand the problems of today.  These programs also help build connections throughout the community and show the value of the elderly, whose experiences are sometimes lost or overlooked.  (Source: City of Roanoke)

Further Reading

Capturing the Living Past: An Oral History Primer – Nebraska State Historical Society

Southern Oral History Program


Oral History Primer – University of California Santa Cruz

Step-by-Step Guide to Oral History