Community Oral History Toolkit

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communityoralhistorytoolkitThis five-volume set is the definitive guide to all aspects of conducting successful community oral history projects that conform to best practices in the field. What are the fundamental principles that make one oral history project fly and another falter? Community Oral History Toolkit examines theoretical foundations for oral history practice and offers applicable tools and guidelines that you can mold to your project’s specific needs. The wealth of existing literature on oral history methodology is designed for academic research; the Toolkit, however, is specifically geared toward community groups unaffiliated with large institutions such as universities. Volumes include an introduction to community oral history, planning and managing community oral history projects, interviewing subjects, and processing the interviews. Volumes in the set are also available separately.


Review by Lee S. Berry in The Oral History Review

Mary Kay Quinlan and Barbara Sommer, coauthors of The Oral History Manual (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2002), have joined Nancy MacKay, author of Curating Oral Histories: From Interview to Archive (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2006) to produce Community Oral History Toolkit. This work encompasses five slim volumes in which the authors set out to equip community history groups with the tools they need to plan, manage, conduct, maintain, and preserve an oral history project. The coauthors have augmented the wealth of experience they themselves bring to the task with both a mastery of the relevant literature and surveys of practicing oral historians.

Volume One: Introduction to Community Oral History provides an introduction to the series, foundational definitions of both oral history andcommunity, and an unsatisfyingly brief overview of the study of history and oral history’s place within it. More helpful, perhaps, is the ten-item list of “Best Practices for Community Oral History Projects”; the best practices are explored in detail in chapter 7, and the list reappears in each of the subsequent four volumes. Readers will also find brief treatments of recording technologies, ethical considerations, and preservation and secondary use of oral histories.

Readers begin to delve into the nitty-gritty in Volume Two: Planning a Community Oral History Project. Here they will discover chapters on first steps toward initiating an oral history project, designing the project, planning for people and equipment, budgeting and funding sources, and planning for processing and training. Volume 2 also establishes three fictitious sample projects—a small, all-volunteer neighborhood project; a grant-funded project developed in partnership with a city; and a pilot project for a historical society—that serve as examples throughout this and subsequent volumes in the series.

Volume Three: Managing a Community Oral History Project revisits many of the topics addressed in volume 2, with a shift in focus from planning to management. The reappearance of sections on legal and ethical guidelines, budgets and funding, equipment and staff feel repetitive, and may leave users of these handbooks somewhat unclear on which volume to pull off the shelf when they are trying to find a quick answer to a question on one of these subjects. An organizational scheme driven by topic rather than by project stage could have resulted in less repetition, but would perhaps have run counter to the authors’ vision for the series.

Volume Four: Interviewing in Community Oral History features chapters on understanding oral history interviews, the ethical dimensions of preparing for, conducting, and processing interviews, and necessary steps before, during, and after the interview. Volume Five: After the Interview in Community Oral History tackles in more detail the tasks that remain after the interview is done—processing, transcribing, editing, cataloging, preserving, and using oral histories. Throughout all five volumes, pithy bits of advice, like “Oral history practitioners focus on the past, work in the present, and plan for the future,” or “Be prepared to troubleshoot everything,” are set off in boldface on many pages. Lengthier passages with handy checklists or relevant quotes and anecdotes from survey responses appear in boxes on other pages.

Where the Community Oral History Toolkit really lives up to its name is in the appendix to volume 1, which offers a comprehensive set of sample forms for planning and managing an oral history project. Templates for these forms are available for download in both Microsoft Word and PDF file formats at While each community group tackling an oral history project for the first time would clearly need to customize these forms for its own purposes, they nonetheless provide a tremendous head start. Included are samples of legal releases, deeds of gift, and agreements with interviewers, transcribers, and other volunteers, as well as forms to manage processing and cataloging.

All five volumes are carefully indexed, enhancing their usefulness, and pointers to further reading in each direct readers to books and articles that can help flesh out the sometimes skeletal treatment of the topics covered within each volume. Volume 1’s glossary and list of resources are likewise of great value to the oral history neophyte. With the Community Oral History Toolkit, Quinlan, Sommer, and MacKay have rendered a significant service to organizations making their first foray into oral history. More seasoned organizations may still find much of value in these five handbooks, as they offer inspiration for improving or streamlining one’s approach to planning and managing new and existing projects.

Oxford Journals, Arts & Humanities, The Oral History Review, Volume 42, Issue 2, Pp. 382-383.

Review by Megan Taylor Shockley in The Public Historian

In Community Oral History Toolkit, Nancy MacKay, Mary Kay Quinlan,
and Barbara W. Sommer explain in detail how a community organization
should conduct an oral history project from start to finish. The authors,
a public historian, a journalist, and a librarian, set for themselves an ambitious
task—to explain to a non-academic public the best practices in oral history as
established by the Oral History Association. To that end, they synthesize
much of the current field of literature on oral history and draw from surveys
they conducted with organizations that embarked on oral history projects of
their own. At the outset, they explain that this five-volume set is designed for
organizations that want to conduct oral history projects but who lack formal
institutions with which they can consult.

Each volume in the series deals with a different aspect of the oral history
project, from its inception to its completion. The authors conceive of oral
history projects as large-scale research projects that deserve attention to detail
from the first planning stages through the interview and post-interview process.
In addition, the authors focus on management of the projects from start
to finish. Because of the great detail given to various aspects of oral history
projects, from securing the proper project team to using the correct technology
and locating the proper repository for the finished products, the volumes
are a bit repetitious at times, as the themes tend to overlap in each volume.
However, there is much to admire about the extensive scope of the authors’

Volume One provides an overview of the series. It discusses the evolution
of the field and explains the important differences between genealogists,
reporters, folklorists, social scientists, and oral historians. It introduces the
importance of understanding memory and its complexities, but it also handles
the day-to-day tasks that need to be handled by communities embarking on
projects, including the importance of pulling together volunteers, finding
repositories for the project, identifying technologies needed to conduct oral
histories, and distributing release forms. It provides a checklist for organizations
to use that lays out in detail the tasks that must be done to bring a project
to completion, and its appendix lists the forms that any project management
team needs to keep track of all aspects of the project.

Volume Two addresses the planning stage of oral histories. It discusses how
an organization can construct a mission statement, craft the guiding questions,
identify the community to be studied for the project, find interviewees, and
locate a repository for the project. It also discusses the important legal and
ethical issues associated with conducting oral histories, including copyright laws
and the necessity of securing release forms. This volume also focuses on the
practical issues of researching backgrounds on the interviewees, creating
a research and budget plan (including locating funding resources), finding space
for interviews and for the office workers involved in the project, and the pros
and cons of various kinds of technology. This volume includes a list of project
planning forms for the management team.

Volume Three focuses on managerial issues and explains the duties of the
project director as well as the project team. It also gives tips on volunteer
management and equipment handling, storage, and testing. It suggests establishing
technology workshops for all interviewers. This volume details how
managers can seek out nonprofit partners, find donors of services, and
approach grant writing. In addition, it explains how to manage the interview
itself, from how to maintain a historical focus by researching the topic before
conducting interviews and how to choose interviewees, as well as how to
engage good interviewers and how to set up training workshops and manuals
for them. It even explains to project managers how to locate an ideal archive
for the interviews. The most valuable resource in this volume may well be the
way in which it describes how to manage all of the people involved in the
project, from interviewers to transcribers and office support, as well as how to
handle public relations for the project.

Volume Four explicates the process of the interview. It explains exactly
what interviewers do, as well as what an oral history is—a wealth of ‘‘raw
source material’’ (23) that will be mined for its valuable information later. It
discusses the ways in which people remember and reinterpret events differently,
and it discusses how to get the most out of interviewees, from being
a respectful and excellent listener to following up with important questions
or memory prompts to probe interviewees more deeply. It gives suggestions
on the kinds of open-ended questions interviewers can ask to secure the
most detailed answers. This volume also focuses on the importance of having
good historical information in which to contextualize questions in the
interview, and explains how to find the best possible interviewees. Moreover,
it discusses the management of an oral history interview, including
how to schedule interviews themselves and how to handle cultural differences
between interviewers and their interviewees. This volume, too, discusses
in detail the ethics and copyright laws associated with conducting oral

Volume Five focuses on what happens after the interview. It outlines how
to process the interview and maintains that the interview is not over until it is
archived and accessible to other scholars. It examines everything from defining
the end goal of the interview to the space needed for the administration of
the post-interview process and the agreements needed between the organization,
interviewee, and repository. It explains why and how organizations
should transcribe and catalog interviews. In addition, it provides a glossary of
catalog and preservation terms for groups unfamiliar with archival practices.
This volume also discusses how to publicize the collection and how to utilize
the raw material for end products, suggesting documentaries, books, websites,
theater, tours, and museum exhibits.

This series provides a comprehensive analysis of the many steps associated
with an oral history project. As such, it maintains as its focus the ‘‘best
practices’’ as defined by the Oral History Association. It also exhorts readers
to remember that oral histories are as much about the process of the
project from its inception to the end as they are about obtaining information.
The authors focus more on the practical aspects of the oral history
process than the theoretical issues concerning memory and constructed
communities/identities, although they do address these issues. Experienced
oral history scholars will not find much new in these volumes, but these
scholars are clearly not the intended audience, as the authors state in the
first volume.

The best indicator of a successful public history book is its usability. Just
this week I found myself telling a museum director that a local historical
society about to embark on a serious oral history project needs to read this
series. The detailed discussions of how to begin a project, as well as the
focus on the best technologies for the group, and the legal and ethical issues
involved in oral histories might be especially useful for an inexperienced
organization. The fact that the authors relied not only on their own extensive
experience and oral history literature but also on information obtained
from other groups that conducted oral history projects suggests that they
thought deeply about how best practices could be applied to different kinds
of organizations. Their case studies and fictitious examples provide concrete
models for aspiring oral historians to follow. Their sample forms,
which are also downloadable from the book’s website, will be invaluable
for small organizations that do not have many resources available to them.
For a community organization, these volumes are extremely helpful in
synthesizing the field of oral history into an accessible, readable, and comprehensible