Oral History Resources

In recent years, the volume of resources for doing oral history, much less for exploring digital oral histories has expanded dramatically. The Center often leads community-centered workshops for teachers, communities, and students where we help partners build oral history projects around their interests. Recently, Center Co-Director, Professor Tebeau contributed to the discussions initiated by Michigan State University, the Library of Congress, and the Oral History Association to redefine standards for oral history practice that are connected to the emergence of digital practice. This project, Oral History in the Digital Age, provides much guidance in how to think about the field and emerging standards of practice.

Increasingly, leading oral history centers across the country are sharing their approach to the field, which can be found on the web. These include the Southern Oral History Project, Columbia University, the Louis Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky, Rice University, and programs at California State University-Fullerton, and the program at the University of California, Berkeley, among many others including the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. The Center for Public History + Digital Humanities has developed the Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection, featuring over 800 narratives documenting the region’s history.

Fabulous resources for collecting oral histories include Making Sense of Oral History, Do History (from Harvard University), the American Folklife Center’s Field Guide, and various “how to” documents obtainable from the Southern Oral History Project or Baylor University’s Introduction to Oral History.

Also, I recommend exploring some of the vast collections on oral history as a way to introduce students to best practices and oral history as practice.  Perhaps my favorite in this respect are the slaves narratives collected by the American Folklife Center during the WPA, which brilliantly reveal the challenges, possibilities, and complexity of oral history as a source for teaching & learning. Couple these with the transcriptions available in American Memory at the LOC, and one can find a brilliant teaching module on the history of slavery in America.  Alternatively, if students and teachers want to document American history through oral history, the Veteran’s Oral History Project provides an extraordinary way to explore War through the lens of oral history, and make a contribution to the nation’s historical record, including becoming a partner in a vast nationwide endeavor. Less satisfying are projects like Storycorps, which is conceived more in terms of radio documentary than oral history, but this too can serve as a model for teaching and learning history.

In our practice, the Center for Public History + Digital Humanities has been especially active in exploring how oral history collection and interpretation have been transformed in the digital age. Best expressed in our Cleveland Historical project, we have explored creating a process through which the community can document itself–as in the Cleveland Regional Oral History Project. Thru CROHP (the “H” is silent), the Center has created a system through which community partners can collect, annotate, and contribute oral history to our collection, taking a slightly modified approach to best professional practice. This approach, described by Tebeau in a recent Oral History Review article, has become the basis then for an oral history-based interpretive approach to the history of Cleveland and American history more broadly.

Indeed, Cleveland Historical, offers a story-based interpretive approach to the history of Cleveland, told through native mobile applications for (iOS and Android) and a mobile-optimized website.  Developed around oral history, but also supporting layers of meaning expressed in video, images, and text, our storytelling technique privileges a social historical and thematic approach to region–one shaped by the transformations of the digital age. (Our YouTube Channel features many of those video narratives.) Through geo-location, our mobile context allows users to experience stories within the urban landscape, adding interpretive depth and breaking barriers between classroom and community. Listening to the stories of West Side Market vendors is deeply meaningful regardless of where we listen, but those narrative gain new meaning when we listen to them while shopping at the market.

Finally, our work has privileged a community approach to storytelling, in which narratives are developed by the broader community–such as those stories created by students at St. Ignatius High School about Cleveland’s Brewing industry–including K-12 teachers, K-12 students, university undergraduates,  community organizations, and cultural institutions. With over 12,000 downloads and tens of thousands of visitors (to the website) monthly, the Cleveland Historical has challenged scholars and communities to reconsider how oral history can be used to document community.

We hope to continue to partner with the community to document the region’s history through oral history and invite you to inquire about joining us in this endeavor.

Mark Tebeau is a co-founder of the Center for Public History + Digital Humanities at Cleveland State University and currently serves as a Professor of History at Arizona State University.