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Course & Subject Guides

Oral History Toolkit: A How-To and Resource Guide

This guide serves as a toolkit for students, staff and faculty who intend to create an oral history project or are curious about how to use oral histories as primary resources.

What Is An Oral History?

According to Donald Ritchie in Doing Oral History, an "[o]ral history collects memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews.  An oral history interview generally consists of a well-prepared interviewer questioning an interviewee and recording their exchange in audio or video format.  Recordings of the interview are transcribed, summarized, or indexed and then placed in a library or archives. These interviews may be used for research or excerpted in a publication, radio or video documentary, museum exhibition, dramatization or other form of public presentation. Recordings, transcripts, catalogs, photographs and related documentary materials can also be posted on the Internet.  Oral history does not include random taping, such as President Richard Nixon’s surreptitious recording of his White House conversations, nor does it refer to recorded speeches, wiretapping, personal diaries on tape, or other sound recordings that lack the dialogue between interviewer and interviewee.”


Why Are Oral Histories Important?

A word is worth a thousand pictures.  

Most people like to talk about things that are important to them. It could be an historical event, a story about growing up, something in their past that inspired them.  An oral history lets someone tell their story in their own words. 

George Barbour interviewing a nun, April 4, 1968

George Barbour, KDKA Radio, interviewing a nun on the National Day of Mourning, 1968.

Role of the Archives

The goal of the archives is to ensure the long-term preservation and access to all of its holdings. To that end, Archives & Special Collections is available to assist students, staff, and faculty as oral history projects are being planned. If the project is intended to be deposited in Archives & Special Collections, we are happy to help so that all of the appropriate and necessary files, documents, and ancillary information that make up an oral history collection are present.  We have experience in conducting oral histories, establishing guidelines and documentation, and in helping to make oral histories available for research. Feel free to contact us via Ask-An-Archivist to set up a consultation.