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Curriculum:  Social Studies and English Language Arts:  Oral History

The Texas Legacy archive is built on a set of oral history interviews with many conservationists.  Students can learn about their community and surroundings using oral history methods too.

Goal:  The student uses problem-solving and decision-making skills, working independently and with others, in a variety of settings.

Your Local Conservation Legacy

Learn about leaders and issues in your community, and help TexasLegacy.org add to our archives, by finding and interviewing conservationists in your town.  Whether you do an interview for a paper or report, or create your own video, please upload the information onto a school webpage, or create your own page at a free site like MySpace.com, then send us your link via http://www.texaslegacy.org/bb/contact.php!  Here’s how we recommend you get started: 

1.  Understand why oral histories are collected.

Simply put, oral history is a record of living memory.  It is a first-hand record of an individual's experiences, life, work, and insights, typically based on an interview.  Its strength is its immediacy and closeness to the past's events and participants, and the rich diversity of historical views that it allows.  Oral history's weakness is its vulnerability to hazy memories and subjective views of events. 

Oral histories sometimes focus on an individual's life, and sometimes are meant to contribute to a larger view, perhaps a history of a family, a community, a company, an event, or other shared experience.

There is a rich tradition of oral history that can help get you inspired and help you structure your own efforts. 

Studs Terkel is one of the more well-known American oral historians, and his works have been compiled in The Studs Terkel Reader:  My American Century, that should be available at your local library or book store. 

Another good and more varied resource to consider is the Folklore Project of the Federal Writers' Project, which collected 2900 oral histories drawn from 10,000 interviews taken by 300 writers in 24 states, from 1936-40.  It can be found on-line: 


2.  Learn how oral history is made.

You might say that there is both an art and a science to collecting oral history.  The art is in the effort to build friendship, earn trust and avoid offense, and yet ask the relevant, probing and sometimes uncomfortably frank questions.  The art is in the intuitive sense of which answers to let lie as the final word, and which to follow up on to find our more.  The art is in the balance of asking enough questions to cover a wide range of years and diversity of topics, and yet not trample on the fact that it is the narrator's story, not the questioner's, and you must defer to the narrator's pace and choice of topic. 

On the other hand, the science of oral history is in the means that you use to record your questions and the narrator's answers in a way that will be affordable, thorough, easily accessible, and durable.  Technology's advances have offered a wide variety of machines and media to choose among.

There are many different ways of recording a perfectly useful oral history, from relatively simple to more complex, with less or more machinery and preparation involved.  At the simple end, an oral history can be compiled with just paper and pen, good attention to what's being said, and fast handwriting.  From that level, the next step up would be to use an audio tape recorder, whether it's an analog or digital machine, and whether one uses an analog cassette, DAT tape, CD, or flash memory (as in an iPod or MP3 player/recorder).  In addition, you might want to complement your written or audio record with a photograph of the storyteller.

The next step of complexity would involve video, and within that world, there are choices among hi-8 (analog or digital) and mini-dv (regular and high-resolution), and among using natural or artificial light, sound through the camera or through independent microphones and mixers.  With each extra level of complexity, you will get a more complete record of your interview, but you will also face extra cost, more need for a larger team, and unfortunately, greater risk of failure.  Also, you may find that the use of high-end video cameras, powerful lights, and intrusive microphones can intimidate your narrator, and, at least for a while, get in the way of the story.

To help you make these choices, please consider participating in the H-OralHist oral history listserve:


3. Explore what you can learn from oral history

The world has an infinite variety of topics and knowledgeable people to tell you about those topics.  Your job is to narrow down the options!  A good place to start is with close-by people and events that you know best, rather than with exotic topics and celebrity pundits.  If you feel unsure about local conservation issues and who has been involved, you might start by asking for advice from your biology teacher, local newspaper reporter, reference librarian or local elected officials.  Or, you can turn to the many federal, state, county and municipal agencies that are responsible for stewardship of our natural resources.  Finally, you might consult with local non-profit groups:  some are national and well-known (Audubon Society, Environmental Defense, Natural Resources Defense Council, Nature Conservancy, or the Sierra Club), while others are local and small, but often very well-versed in local issues (you might look them up under "Friends of...", "Defenders of...", "Save our ...", etc.).

As you find out more about each topic, choose the topic that interests you the most.  Even better, find one that has, or could eventually, impact you, your family or friends.   This will keep your curiosity and enthusiasm up as you proceed with the oral history, and make it clear to the narrator that you are truly interested and engaged. 

4. Decide whom you will record for your oral history

As you explore the topic that most holds your interest, now you'll need to hunt for the best person to explain the topic to you, and those who see the oral history you collect.  Ask your circle of contacts for:

  • narrators who have a personal stake and involvement in the subject.  You don't want to collect rumor and hearsay; 

  • people who have been participating in work on the topic for a long time.  You wouldn't want to only get the most recent chapters of a story, without the preface, introduction and early chapters; 

  • those who have a balanced view of an event or issue.  While you don't want to hear a censored or laboriously balanced story, you also will want to avoid hyperbole, accusations, recriminations, and highly partisan narratives that may cloud the truth; 

  • storytellers who actually enjoy talking:  a shy or modest person can make a wonderful friend, but not so good a narrator; and 

  • narrators with a sense of humor, often a sign of a good perspective.

As you search for your ideal storyteller, and go through a checklist of these and other questions, please remember to keep good notes of the names of the people who offer referrals, and whom they suggest you record.  This will help you find the best person or persons to interview.  Generally, the more people who recommend a given narrator, the better off you'll be.  Reputations do count.

5 Prepare for your oral history interview

Budget your time in researching, conducting and editing the interview.  This work is hard to do quickly.  You might want to lay out your plan in a schedule like this, perhaps backing the timeline out from when the project is due:


Amount of Time Needed

Due Date


Working Dates

Submit URL link for project to TexasLegacy.org 1 hour 15 December (for a fall semester example) 8 Dec - 15 Dec

Upload final product to the web.

1 week

8 Dec

1 Dec - 8 Dec

Evaluation by teacher, parent, other leader

1 week

1 Dec

24 Nov - 1 Dec

Review by narrator 1 week 24 Nov 17 Nov - 24 Nov

Edit Interview and create webpage with interview

2 weeks

17 Nov

3 Nov - 17 Nov


1 Day

3 Nov

3 Nov

Set up interview (draft letter or phone call, contact, arrange)

2 weeks

3 Nov

20 Oct - 3 Nov

Research target subjects (topics and person to interview)

1 week

20 Oct

13 Oct - 20 Oct

Research interview technique, draft interview

1-2 weeks

13 Oct

30 Sep - 13 Oct

Since you are going to be asking someone to give you some of their time, AND share their personal memories, thoughts and advice with you, be courteous and show your respect and gratitude for their time and insights.  Tell your subject the who, what, when, where and why of  your project.  This will help you explain clearly why you think what they did or have to say is important enough to interview.  Here is a basic outline of the things you should be able to discuss with the person you want to interview:

  • Who you are

  • Why you are doing the interview

  • What topic you want to ask them about

  • What you will do with the interview information and the audio and/or videotape, including linking it to TexasLegacy.org

  • How much time you will need for your interview (you can say, for example, about two hours).  When estimating how much time you'll need, remember to include the time needed to set up your equipment and pack it up if you are taping the interview.

  • When you want to (or need to) do the interview (for example, sometime between now and the end of the month, or the week of…).  If you are limited to certain days or times, let them know that, too.

  • Where you want to do the interview.  Offer to go to their office or home, but give them the choice of coming to your school or a room you’ve reserved at your local library, etc, too.  Often narrators are more comfortable where they live or work, and their stories become more fluid and complete.

6. Remember the little things

Compile a first list of things to bring to the interview such as the contact information and directions, camera, cords (extension, AC Adaptor, microphone), tapes or memory cards, notebook and/or tape recorder if you aren’t filming the interview, lights, charged batteries, etc. 

Put together a second list is things to double-check when you are setting up for the interview, especially if you are taping.  Things for this checklist include checking that the equipment is working, that the subject can be heard clearly on the tape, that the subject isn’t back lit, that the background isn’t distracting (like a pole ‘growing’ out of the subject’s head), that you can be heard asking the questions, etc.

7. During the interview

Before you start, review your notes on the topics you'd like to cover, so include mention of all the topics you'd like to include.  People's lives and experiences are long and diverse:  it can be a thicket once you get started, so a little clarity in what you're looking for can help a great deal.

Next, help make your subject feel comfortable during the interview.  If you subject is at ease, he or she will be more likely to give you interesting answers.  You need to be comfortable enough so that you are LISTENING to your subject and can follow up when they say something unexpected or interesting that you weren’t expecting.  You want your interview to sound like a natural conversation, not like you are giving your subject a test on his or her life!

8. Immediately after the interview

Thank the narrator!

Request that he or she sign a release form allowing you to use the interview record.  Here is a simple sample release form (many more involved and comprehensive releases are also possible):


In view of the historical value of this oral history interview, I (name of interview subject) knowingly and voluntarily permit (name of student interviewer, name of class, and name of school) the full use of this information for educational purposes.

Signature (signature of interview subject)

Date (date of interview)

9. Soon after the interview

Write the narrator a thank-you note, and pass on any draft photographs, notes, transcripts, or recordings that you made during the interview.  If you have questions about pronunciations, spellings, or other possible confusing parts of the interview, ask for help resolving the issue.

Prepare your edited, polished piece.

Please submit a link to your great work to http://www.texaslegacy.org/bb/contact.php

When you have uploaded your final project, send another note to the interviewee with the link to your information.

You're done!  Congratulations!



Conservation History Association of Texas
Texas Legacy Project

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