Oral history is a recording of personal testimony delivered in oral form. While historians have long interviewed generals and diplomats, oral history also allows ordinary people, and people from marginalized communities, to place their words on the record. Narrators range from formerly enslaved Virginians interviewed in the 1930s, to whiskey distillers in the 2010s. An oral history is not just the story or interview that a narrator provides; it is also the audio file and transcript entrusted to the interviewer. Oral history projects that become rich archival collections require careful planning and execution.
Oral historians often interview people on the edges of the written record. The interviewer should remain aware of how their identity, the identity of the narrator, and the academic associations of the project will create power differentials and ethical quandaries. Special Collections and University Archives does not archive exploitative or predatory interviews and projects. If you plan to work with marginalized groups, such as incarcerated people or sexual assault victims, contact the Human Research Protection Program (HRPP) before you begin your project.
If you are unfamiliar with doing oral history work or have not worked on oral history projects at Virginia Tech, this guide is meant to be a resource to help you get started. It includes information on people and organizations on campus who do this kind of work ("Practitioners"), resources for creating, formatting, and preserving oral histories ("Resources"), and collections housed in the University Libraries that contain oral histories for research purposes ("Oral History Collections"). Whether you are looking for potential partners, wondering how to format transcripts, or curious about how to make your interviews available, this LibGuide should help point you in the right direction.
If your oral history project will require permanent physical and/or digital preservation and access for research or public use in the future, Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) can help! We encourage you to contact us during the planning stages, if possible, or as soon as possible after you start your project. If you aren't sure why you should donate your project materials to the archives, we are happy to speak with you about services and support we can offer. We can work with you to provide online access in a public, discoverable platform for audio and video interviews. When you contact us, we will:
If you are working with people on campus or the University Libraries already, they may refer you directly to an archivist on our staff. If you don't have other partners yet, we encourage you to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 540-231-3810 and we will connect you to the most appropriate person on our staff.