Oral Histories


This week’s reading came at the perfect time because I am working on a documentary project with a friend. We are collecting stories from people (residents, former residents, stakeholders, city leaders, professionals) throughout five different neighborhoods in order to gain their perspective on a big city project.

I’m not really sure how to respond to our reading for this week other than to reflect on what it forced my brain to turn towards — stories. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the people who tell me stories every day. I’ve noticed, too, that I’m becoming more and more interested in the stories that older people share with me. What would we do without these rich oral histories? A person’s voice is golden. And perhaps I’m thinking about the richness of stories because of the documentary I am currently working on. At least once a week, I am talking with folks (most of whom are fifty years of age and older) about a neighborhood they once lived in. Their stories are incredible and filled with valuable information. I’m often more excited about the interview process and the exchange of information that I completely dismiss the task at hand. It’s interesting to consider how much of the stories will be cut out and left behind for the sake of run time.

I will certainly keep the section on “Pinpointing Problems in Your Interview” at the forefront of my mind during my next interview. I’ve definitely experienced the interviewee being “afraid of the recording equipment,” forgetting information or exact details and putting on a “mask.” I even had someone ask me to turn off the camera so they could share something with me “off-the-record” and of course, what they shared, was the best part of the story. However, it will never make the film. Sigh!

The section on “Questions For Thinking About Your Interview” was also very valuable. Here are a few of my favorite questions from the section:

How did I choose the person to be interviewed?

Did my subject want to talk?

How did I feel while interviewing?

Next time, what would I do the same? What would I do differently?

These questions seem to come to the front of my mind during and after each interview. I think they are most critical. The person you choose to interview is important. At the beginning of my process, I made a list of people I wanted to interview for the documentary and I discovered that many of the people I thought would be interesting folks to talk with about Cleveland and neighborhoods weren’t actually best suited. For one, some people were upfront about feeling as if they were not the best person to interview. I appreciate when people are honest in this way. If not, obviously, time is wasted. During the interviews (thus far) I feel extremely calm and relishing the moment. The older my interviewee, the more fascinating the story! Each time I conduct a new interview I make a checklist of “learns”. What did I learn? Most of the time my “learn” has to do with something technical: lighting, sound, audio, space, clothing. Needless to say, each interview brings about a new discovery.

I enjoy primary sources.  I enjoy authentic encounters.  I am often fearful of other people telling other people’s stories because there will surely be a slip in the truth if we do not tell our own stories.  I’m looking forward to interviewing the rest of my candidates for the documentary project and I’m glad this week’s reading provided me with a solid checklist and reminder of how critical it is to keep oral histories alive.



2 thoughts on “Oral Histories

  1. Hey Ali,

    I really like how you truly reflected on the interviews you’ve done, because for me, interviewing someone is such a nerve wracking experience. I’m holding someone’s voice in my hands, and it’s my duty to reflect them as honestly as possible on the page. That’s a huge responsibility for the writer. What I’ve always loved about oral histories in general is how they can be used for a good purpose. Oral histories give people who otherwise not have the means to share their stories. It gives them an autonomy that they might not have had previously. Besides telling a compelling story on a human interest level, that’s the most important function oral histories can serve.

    Thank you for the wonderful post!



  2. I just realized I had a huge typo in my post and I don’t know how to edit it, or if that’s possible, so I’m commenting again to fix it, because if I don’t, it’ll drive me crazy.

    ***Oral histories give people, who otherwise might not have the means to share their stories, the power to do so.


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