One of the oldest methods of story collection, oral history presents an opportunity for an in-depth exploration of an individual’s life story, often guided by a particular theme e.g. food and food memory. While collecting an oral history the interviewer acts as a guide, making space for a narrator to bear witness to their own experiences. The experience is an intimate one that requires a significant amount of trust and engagement with moments of vulnerability. Oral history collections are often created with the goal of preserving the history of a particular place, community, or moment in society and are often housed in archives of academic institutions.
Things to Consider
- Questions: What will be included in the interview guide and who will be part of its creation?
- Trust: How will interviewers gain the trust of narrators/ how will interviewers gain access to narrators?
- Equipment: Will interviews be collected using audio or video recorders?
- Processing: How will interviews and accompanying information be processed, archived, and shared or displayed?
- Access: Where will the collection be housed and who will have access?
- Purpose: What is the ultimate purpose of this collection– preservation, research, clips for other projects e.g. podcasts, blogs?
- Oral History lends itself to an intimate and in-depth exploration of one person’s life story, this results in an incredible amount of detail
- Creating a collection of oral histories from a community can build a collective narrative or help to tell the story of the community itself while also showcasing the diversity of perspectives within it
- Narrators have control over how their story is told and what they want to share
- The original audio and transcript can be archived and exist as a primary source that can be explored and used for further research
- Fits in academic and non-academic settings
- Not much equipment is needed
- Possibility for audio or video recording
- Can be used as a jumping-off point for many other types of projects such as podcasts and print publications
- Fairly inexpensive
- There’s a great deal of time and effort that goes into the creation and archival of successful oral history. Ideally, Interviewers will establish a relationship with the narrator to gain their trust and put them at ease during the interview
- Easier if the interviewer has a connection to the community they are collecting stories from
- Oral history interviews need to be processed in order to be accessible or interesting to non-academic audiences. Processing can include transcription, attaching biographical information, writing an introduction to the project.
- Institutional affiliation can be positive but can also make it less likely that general audiences will access collections
“The magic of doing oral history is the fact that you are holding space. You are allowing a person to witness about their own life.”Anne Marie Anderson, Southern Foodways Alliance
Oral History Projects to Explore
|Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”||This book is a posthumous publication of Zora Neal Hurston’s experience collecting the life history of Cudjo Lewis, the last surviving individual to have come to the United States through the transatlantic slave trade. Hurston leaves Lewis’ dialect intact and offers an incredible example of the patience, time and trust required to obtain an oral history||https://www.amazon.com/Barracoon-Story-Last-Black-Cargo/dp/0062748203|
|El Paso Food Voices||Digital Oral History Collection documenting the food landscape of El Paso with stories from Public and Private Kitchens. Video interviews include a cooking demo||https://volt.utep.edu/epfoodvoices/|
|Foodways Texas: Oral History||Oral history collections featuring the stories of chefs, journalists, scholars, farmers, ranchers, industry pioneers, and others to celebrate, preserve, and promote awareness of diverse Texas Food cultures||www.foodwaystexas.org|
|Louie B Nunn Center for Oral History||Extensive oral history archive featuring collections on Agriculture, Appalachia, politics and public policy||https://kentuckyoralhistory.org/|
|Manitoba Food History Project||Digital Collection documenting history of food production and consumption in Manitoba. Some interviews and cooking demos conducted on a food truck||https://www.manitobafoodhistory.ca/|
|Southern Agriculture Oral History Project Records||Smithsonian collection of Oral History transcripts from interviews collected with Southern farmers and agriculturalists between 1982 and 1991||https://sova.si.edu//record/NMAH.AC.0773|
|Southern Foodways Alliance Oral Histories||Challenging the definition of what it means to be Southern, oral history interviews exploring diverse foods and peoples of the American South||https://www.southernfoodways.org/oral-history/|
|Tasting the Global City: Multicultural Histories of Toronto Cuisines||Oral History Collection documenting the history of Toronto cuisine, part of larger collection project||https://www.utsc.utoronto.ca/projects/torontofood/|
|The American Brewing History Initiative||Smithsonian Museum of American History collection of Oral History Interviews documenting the rise of Craft Brewing in the United States, part of the Food History exhibit||https://americanhistory.si.edu/brewing-history/oral-histories|
|The Farmer Oral History Collection||Oral History Project organized by students in a Sustainable Agriculture class at the College of Wooster to preserve the stories of mid-sized family farms in rural Ohio||https://openworks.wooster.edu/farmer_oral_history/|
|Traditional Foodways of Native America: Oral Histories of Native Food Revitalization||Oral History collection exploring the work being done to preserve and revitalize Native American Foodways with Native American elders, teachers, farmers, hunters, wild food foragers, fishermen, cooks and chefs, activists, and advocates||http://www.nativeland.org/oral-histories-native-food|
|UC Santa Cruz Regional History Project||Oral history collections from Santa Cruz region including stories from grassroots organizers and activists who are part of the sustainable agriculture and organic farming movement on CA’s central coast||https://library.ucsc.edu/regional-history-project|
|UNC Southern Oral History Program||Extensive library archive of Southern Oral Histories including collection on Lumbee Foodways and Carabo Farmer’s Market||https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/project/collection/sohp/|
|Western PA Foodways Collection||Oral History collection featuring farmers, bakers, millers, business owners, food artisans exploring food traditions, and innovations in Western PA. Collections based on a theme||https://www.craft.chatham.edu/western-pennsylvania-foodways-collection1|