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Mining the Memories

Oral history projects, senior citizens, and history museums, historical societies, historic sites, and history centers have a long symbiotic association. Seniors have the memories that these institutions treasure, and oral history projects put the two together. Sometimes the impetus is a centennial or other anniversary of a community, museum, or collection. Often a university history department makes the first move as part of an undergraduate or graduate course. Occasionally, a museum will uncover an artifact or photograph that needs the first-hand explanation locked in someone’s memory. Oral history is also an overlooked, but brilliant, addition to science centers, art museums and galleries, zoos, and gardens.

Oral History

Oral history has been defined most succinctly as “spoken memories.” It consists of an oral “document” regardless of the technique used to capture it— written record, audio or video tape, or participant observation where the historian participates in the action he records. Oral history is important as a supplement or complement to written documents and is particularly useful in societies or aspects of society that have little or no written history or where telling the “story” might be restricted in some way. Although there are important histories written from the oral reminiscences of famous people, many of the best oral histories are from “ordinary” people whose stories are usually not recorded in written documents but whose memories tell the “why” and the “how” of events.

One of the principal advantages of oral history over written documents is the participation of the interviewer in creating the oral document. A good interviewer can ask the questions and provide the impetus that uncovers memories of specific events. There is also a danger, of course, in oral history if the interviewer does not take care to avoid introducing his or her own biases during the interview process.

The process

Numerous books and courses exist to help novices begin oral history projects. The American Association of State and Local History, for example, has published several books and technical leaflets that explore various aspects of oral history. Two books in particular are helpful: From Memory to History by Barbara Allen and Lynwood Montell and Transcribing and Editing Oral History by Willa Baum. Three technical leaflets available from the AASLH bookstore online ( deal with this subject:

#210- A Guide to Oral History Interviews;

#191- Using Oral History in Museums; and

#123- Using Oral History for a Family History Project.

This discussion will only highlight certain aspects of the process, and you are encouraged to do additional research on the topic before beginning your first project.

Merely recording the memories of a senior member of your docent staff is not oral history. Without context, such recordings are merely interesting, not historically valuable. Therefore, the first step in undertaking an oral history project is selecting a topic and researching the historical context within which that topic exists. For example, interviews with local citizens about an event of significance in your community should be preceded by careful examination of existing newspaper articles, previously published materials, letters or journals, and other written accounts. Such early research will lead you to the types of questions that you want to have answered — the facts that are omitted, the contradictions that are evident, the emotions that are missing.

After preliminary research is completed and questions compiled, it is time to select interviewees who have first-hand knowledge of the event. At the very least, keep in mind that interviewing a 65-year-old about Pearl Harbor will uncover the memories of a three-year-old! This is another place where senior docents can be of immense help. They may have the local contacts that will help uncover the best people to interview about a particular topic or event. They can offer introductions that smooth the path for interviewers who are not local or not of the same age as the person being interviewed. In most cases, however, they may not be the best people to do the actual interviews. It is frequently more likely that an oral history subject will talk more freely to a knowledgeable stranger than to a friend or acquaintance who might disagree with or be “hurt” by certain revelations.

During the interview itself, care should be taken to put the interviewee at ease. The presence of audio or video equipment can be off-putting initially, but a good interviewer can soon make a subject forget about equipment in the course of what should be an interesting dialogue. Taking notes should also accompany a recorded interview, but the interviewee should give permission for both. Another necessity, if the recorded history is ever to be published, is a simple statement of release signed before the interview. Such a release does not, however, absolve the interviewer of ethical considerations concomitant with a person’s memories.


Although oral history is most often used with history museums and historic sites, other institutions can develop oral history projects to supplement and complement their own collections. Art museums and galleries, for example, might interview area artists and their models, family and friends, for additional insight into the creative process. Museums with photography collections would find interviews with early photographers, even nonprofessionals, could illuminate the challenges of pre-digital photography. The same museum might also wish to record the difficulties attendant on decisions to collect photography or some other genre. The memories of long-time docents and/or board members regarding the creation of the collection or some aspect of it, as well as their personal reactions to “new” art, could be a valuable asset to the museum’s archives.

In science museums, recollections about inventions such as electricity, television, or even something as mundane as a ballpoint pen, could create an interesting layer for an exhibit about inventions. Interviews with local inventors, engineers, and mathematicians might illuminate a variety of aspects of scientific collections. Teachers’ memories about the changes in the teaching of science throughout their careers would create an interesting document.

The memories of docents in gardens and nature centers are rich depositories of the folklore of herbs’ and other plants. The processing of cotton, flax, and other plant fibers and/or the development of a local plant “industry” such as growing roses or grapes also can be recorded by oral history projects in such institutions.

Although the board minutes of a zoo will offer a discussion of development of a breeding program or introduction of a new species to the zoo’s collection, oral interviews are the only way to discover the human interplay that led to these changes. Older zoos, too, have a wealth of information regarding changes in animal presentation and education policies locked away in the memories of long-time volunteers and staff.

The Importance of Seniors

Of course, seniors are not the only repositories of memories. A project recalling local reaction to the 9/11 attacks, for example, might record interviews with people of all ages in order to determine the effect on people at different stages of their lives. Seniors are often used in oral history projects because they are the sole keepers of first-hand memories of certain events in the past. There is no where else to find such memories. Another timely reason is exemplified in an African proverb: When an elder dies, a library dies with him. Tomorrow may be too late to capture and record some of our memories.

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “Mining the Memories,” The Docent Educator 12.3 (Spring 2003): 12-13.

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