American History Project Ideas: Capturing Oral History

By Trent Lorcher

Remember when you were a kid and your grandpa droned on incessantly about his days in the Navy and how they navigated using stars and constellations? You just wanted him to shut up so you could eat ice cream and cake with your cousins. Now he's dead and you wish you could remember all the stories.

The Basics

Capturing Oral History involves interviewing someone of interest. An oral history uses a person's own words to record stories and information about the subject's life. Oral histories are common for reporters, anthropologists, historians, and counselors. The same skills involved in capturing oral history are used by doctors, lawyers, and judges.

Interview Basics:

  1. Prepare questions and research the person before the interview.
  2. Record the information accurately with notes or an audio recorder, if given permission.
  3. Prepare open ended questions.
  4. Ask follow up questions for clarification.
  5. Conduct the interview in 90 minutes or less. Be respectful of the subject's time.

Oral History Basics:

  1. Include background information about the person in the introduction.
  2. Include accurate quotations.
  3. Present a well rounded profile of the person.
  4. Focus and organize.

As you can see the Oral History Project can be part of your English project ideas or American History project ideas.

Conducting the Interview

Oral History Projects without a good interview ultimately fail. Follow these steps for a successful interview:

  1. Create Questions in Advance: Determine what you want to know about the person you're interviewing and create questions that focus on specific aspects of the person's life. Avoid yes/no questions and questions that can be answered with one or two words.
  2. Do Research: If the person you're interviewing is a public figure, you can go to the library or search on the Internet for information. If you're interviewing a non-public figure, talk to people who may know him or her. Doing research allows you to ask more in depth questions.
  3. Schedule the Interview: Set a date, time, and place for the interview. Show up on time. Tell the subject in advance how long the interview will last and do not go over the time limit. If you plan on using a recording device, ask for permission in advance.
  4. Listen Carefully: You should be doing 10 times as much listening as talking. Even if you have a recorder, listen carefully and take accurate notes. These notes can be used for follow up questions.
  5. Transcribe Notes: Write down word for word what the person says. Review your notes immediately after the interview and rewrite anything that may be too sloppy or unclear. Feel free to contact the person to clarify information. People would rather be bugged than misquoted.

If the process is done correctly, you have one of the best English project ideas ever.

Planning and Drafting

Interviews are nice, but it is up to the writer or presenter to make oral history projects come to life. You can choose to do a written oral history or an oral history presentation. Here are suggestions for planning the presentation or written report once the interview has concluded:

  1. Choose a Focus: Reread the interview transcript and decide which parts you will focus on.
  2. Organize Material: You can write or present the history in narrative form or expository form. You can organize material chronologically, spatially, or from least important to most important. If you're doing an oral presentation, you may wish to present the history in question/answer form.
  3. Make sure your introduction includes background information on the subject.
  4. Never invent details.
  5. Conclude by telling a personal anecdote from the subject, if possible; otherwise, summarize the main points.

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