Sent to The Frederick Leader and The Frederick Press, April 19, 2011
Oral histories preserve voices and memories
For decades, the best way make audio recordings of stories or interviews was on tape – reel-to-reel and then cassette.
Today, digital recordings are best. Many computers have a built-in microphone and software that can record sounds and conversations as MP3 computer files. Recordings can be made directly to the computer, or recorded to digital recorders and downloaded to computers.
The results are voice recordings with quality sound that can be edited, easily preserved on a CD or DVD, and easily shared by e-mail!
In the past this column has addressed the importance of written histories. We all, regardless of age, should preserve memories of our past in writing.
Another important way to preserve the past, though, is through the recording of oral histories. Oral histories usually involve an interview format in which one person questions another about their life.
StoryCorps Oral History Format
StoryCorps is an oral history project that is sponsored by National Public Radio. Since the project began in 2003, more than 60,000 people have recorded interviews about their lives. At the StoryCorps website (www.storycorps.org) there are instructions for how to conduct oral history interviews, sample questions and topics, and actual interviews that have been conducted in StoryCorps’ mobile recording studio.
The StoryCorps mobile studio (a RV outfitted with recording equipment) visited Cameron University in Lawton for one week in 2006, and people in our area were invited to sign up in pairs for interview sessions. I took my dad, D.B. Wynn. The interview was done on the day before his 91st birthday.
Following StoryCorps guidelines, I opened the taped interview by stating the date and identifying myself on the recording. My dad then identified himself, and I started asking questions.
Prior to the interview I had decided what topics the questions would address, and I shared that information with my dad.
Some of the things we talked about during our 30-minute interview were his life as a boy growing up west of Frederick, his life as a farmer and cotton ginner, and changes that he had seen in agriculture during his lifetime. We also discussed the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl years. He talked about my mother -- how he met her, their marriage in 1937, and their life together. We talked about his parents and his memories of his grandparents. We discussed a 1954 tornado that blew away our family home (with us inside, miraculously spared). We also talked about church and his faith.
My dad died less than six months later, but I still have that interview – saved on CD and loaded onto my computer and iPod. Although he has been gone for four years now, at the push of a button I can hear my dad’s voice and hear his stories.
More important, everyone in the family has a copy of the interview. Its digital format makes it easy to share and very easy to preserve for future generations.
Doing an Oral History Interview
Not everyone can do a StoryCorps interview, but everyone can do a digital oral history like the one that I did with my dad. It’s easy.
1. Find a good digital device for recording. Use a computer with a built-in microphone or an attachable USB microphone, or use a digital recorder.
2. Do a sound test to be sure that the equipment is picking up voices the way that you want it to.
3. Decide on general interview questions. Share the topics with the interviewee so that he/she is not surprised during the taping.
4. Open the interview with statements of date and introductions.
5. Keep the questions and answers conversational. If the question topics wander or get off the planned course, that’s okay.
6. Keep the interview sessions to a manageable length (ideally 30-45 minutes) to keep the people involved from getting tired. If more topics need to be covered, do additional sessions.
7. When the interview is done, save it as an MP3 file and label it with the name of the interviewee and the date.
8. Save the interview on a CD or DVD. It’s okay to save it on your computer hard drive, but you want to also back it up because computer hard drives can crash.
For more information about how to conduct an oral history interview or to listen to some fascinating interviews from folks around the nation, log on to the StoryCorps site at www.storycorps.org.
Joe Wynn is a member of the Tillman County Historical Society’s board of directors. He can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.