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  • Writer's pictureAnneliese Abbott

So You Want to Do an Oral History...

Oral history supplies
Oral history supplies - Release form, phone, audio recorder, notepad

What is it like to do an oral history? It’s as easy as telling a story—your story. That’s what an oral history is: a chance for you to preserve your story, told in your own words, for future generations. Researchers like me may use quotes from you in our writings and have our own interpretations. But your own unedited, uncensored story will always be available for people to listen to or read.

Are you a good candidate for an oral history? At the moment, I am looking for older people (60+) who have been involved in some aspect of organic and sustainable agriculture. Have you been farming organically for more than 20 years? Did you help found an organization? Edit a newsletter or magazine? Sell compost? Lobby for organic policy? Work at a co-op? Go back to the land in the seventies? Grow up on an organic farm? If so, get in touch with me! Let’s get your story recorded.

Once you express interest in doing an oral history, the next step is the introductory phone call. I’ll talk to you for 15-30 minutes and ask some questions about your involvement with organic and sustainable agriculture. While you’re talking, I’ll be furiously scribbling down notes, which I will then use to craft a customized list of questions for the actual interview.

The next step is signing the release form. The main thing that makes an oral history different from a podcast or journalistic interview is that it is intended to be archived. It’s not just for today. It’s for 25, 50, even 100 years in the future. So it needs to be deposited in a stable archive, not just posted online. I donate all of my oral history interviews to the Wisconsin Historical Society. I’ll ask you to sign a release form donating the interview before we actually do it. Then, if I lose contact with you later, your interview can still be donated and preserved.

Then it’s time for the actual interview! I’ll send you a list of questions at least a week in advance so you have time to prepare. I’ll stick to those questions pretty closely in the interview, adding in some follow-up questions if necessary. All you have to do is tell your story. It usually takes between one to two hours to do an oral history, depending on how much you have to talk about. I’ve been doing most of my recent interviews over the phone, so you don’t even need to dress up. Just get a glass of water, find a comfy place to sit, and talk about your life.

As soon as possible after the interview, I will transcribe the audio recording. The transcript usually ends up about 10 pages of single-spaced type per hour of interview, depending on how fast you talk. Because this is oral history, I will not be editing the recordings. The transcript needs to be true to the recording, so I can’t majorly change that, either. But I always give you a chance to correct misspellings or add in clarifying material in brackets if necessary.

Finally, once you’ve had a chance to give me feedback on the transcript, I will donate both the recording and the transcript to the Wisconsin Historical Society. They will eventually make all the interviews available, but not until I finish my project. So in the meantime, I am also posting the finished transcripts on this website. I will put yours up as soon as you approve it.

Then it’s on to the next narrator. Will it be you? Send me an email to find out!

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