Practicing Oral History in Historical Organizations

by BarbaraW. Sommer. originally published by Left Coast Press, 2015. Current publisher: Routledge.  ix þ 213 pp.; glossary, references, index;
clothbound, $94.00; paperbound, $29.95; eBook, $29.95.

The Public historian. University of California, Santa Barbara. Graduate Program in Public Historical Studies.;National Council on Public History (U.S.);Society for History in the Federal Government (U.S.) : Reeves, Troy
ArticleTitle: Review: Practicing Oral History in Historical Organizations by Barbara W. Sommer
Description: v. : ill. ; 23 cm. Vol/Iss: Vol. 38, Issue 2 Date: 2016 Pages: 104-105
Vol: Vol. 38, Issue 2 Date: 2016 Pages: 104-105
ISSN – 02723433; LCN – 81640706;
Publisher: Graduate Program in Public Historical Studies, Dept. of History, University of California]; Santa Barbara, Ca.

(Note: references to the Left Coast Press website are no longer active.)
I have a love/hate relationship with ‘‘how-to’’ oral history books. I generally
approach them hoping to find something different from all the other similar tracts
out there. But I also dread that I will not find anything that I could not or did not
read elsewhere. I am happy to report that I finished BarbaraW. Sommer’s Practicing
Oral History in Historical Organizations with far more admiration than admonition.
Sommer divides Practicing Oral History into four parts, as well as the introduction.
One of the book’s highlights occurs in part 4, ‘‘Reflections and Resources,’’ in
which Sommer offers four appendices with forms or templates that historical
organizations can replicate. Some of these forms have URLs, providing access to
a downloadable template at Left Coast Press’s website. Although writers of other
oral history how-to books offer similar appendices, only Left Coast Press books—at
least some in their Practicing Oral History series—allow readers to download
forms, making reproduction far easier. Also, the depth and breadth of forms will
give as much grist to the would-be oral history project’s mill as needed. For these
two reasons alone, I highly recommend this work. But Sommer offers other material to praise. Part 3, ‘‘Oral History: Step by Step,’’ won my personal prize for best section (I’m writing this during Hollywood’saward season). The three chapters within it build upon each other—as well asthe previous two parts—to give those working or volunteering with any type of
historical organization a road map to take oral history from initial idea to finished
product. Another of the book’s highlights comes from Sommer’s use of vignettes, quotes,
and sidebars from her colleagues throughout the oral history world (or, at least
North America). Someone new to oral history gets not only the benefit of Sommer’s
wisdom but anecdotes from numerous oral historians in historical organizations
around the country. And a savvy reader of Practicing Oral History can use these
excerpts to create a list of practitioners to contact for additional advice and support.
In addition, Sommer makes and reiterates many key points about the art and
science of oral history. First, an organization—the Oral History Association—exists
to assist readers by providing a Best Practices and General Principles document,
among other things. Throughout the book, Sommer tackles the importance of
quality audio (or audio/video) and the need for a thoughtful approach when dealing
with communities dissimilar to one’s own—for example, in the case of white oral
historians leading projects on an Indian reservation. Although some might see her
repetition on these topics as overkill, I see it as reiterating key points to make sure
anyone perusing the work understands their importance. Although Practicing Oral History should sit on any historical organization’s bookshelf, I have some minor quibbles. First, there are parts of this book that appear in other oral history books, either written or co-written by Sommer or published by Left Coast Press. So, those who have read many of Sommer’s or
LCP’s books will feel a bit of de´ ja` vu. Also, the part of the introduction that charts
the history of historical organizations seems more like filler than meat. I know it
borders on anathema to say it, but in a how-to oral history book, a section on
history is not necessary. Overall, this book excels at giving practical advice and
forms to staff and volunteers at historical organizations embarking on (or returning
to) an oral history project. Readers could get the history lesson elsewhere.
These minor objections aside, Practicing Oral History succeeds admirably. It
gives those interested in doing oral history at any type of historical organization
a primer. On top of that, it provides readers an introduction to one of oral history’s
most beloved practitioners and some of her valued colleagues. It can furnish one
then with a community to join, not just a book to read.
Troy Reeves, University Wisconsin-Madison


American Indian Oral History Manual: Making Many Voices Heard (review)

The American Indian Oral History Manual: Making Many Voices Heard is a practical guide for Indigenous groups to collect oral history materials within their own communities. This book addresses the significance of Indigenous oral history, legal and ethical issues, project planning, repositories, equipment and budgets, and the interview process. Not only does it validate oral history as a form of Indigenous education, whereby Indigenous knowledge is orally transferred to younger generations, but it also identifies oral tradition as a crucial tool to language preservation, cultural identity, and creating a space for Indigenous knowledge within the “official storyline” (105).

Legal and ethical issues are addressed, such as intellectual property rights, respect and protection of participants, informed consent, tribal and/or cultural protocol, and training for interviewers. Special attention is given to informing participants of the purpose of the project, their rights (to confidentiality, a copy of materials collected, etc.), the risks involved with the project, and the repository background information. The American Indian Law Center’s Model Tribal Research Code, the Oral History Association, and tribal college institutional review boards are referenced as resources to addressing legal and ethical issues. A chapter on project planning provides a guide to developing a mission statement, creating a protocol and ethics statement, constructing an advisory board, managing records, and establishing a repository to house oral history materials (i.e., transcriptions, audio, and/or video). The section on repositories addresses the importance of selecting a safe place for the oral history materials prior to the collection process. This decision is significant to preserving and protecting oral history materials, making the materials accessible to interview participants and community members, and establishing policies and procedures for the long-term use of materials. Multiple questions are presented throughout the manual to assist communities in establishing themes and planning beneficial projects for the community. In addition, the appendix includes sample oral history forms and oral history evaluation guidelines that address project responsibilities to the interviewees (narrators), the public, and sponsoring institutions, including project guidelines, consent forms, project logs, inventory forms, and correspondence.

A chapter on equipment and budget issues reviews the importance of selecting equipment that collects the highest quality interview, has an extended natural life span, and is accessible to the community. Additionally, a checklist of budget items is listed to plan and prepare for project expenses. The chapters on interview process provide a clear and concise guide to establishing a rapport with the narrator, collecting background information, formatting and conducting interviews, cultural considerations, the role of technology, and the preservation of oral history materials. A particularly useful tool is a sample training workshop agenda to provide training for interviewers. The agenda outlines an introduction to Indigenous knowledge, a detailed explanation of the project and its goals, a dialogue of legal and ethical issues, a workshop on the use of equipment and project forms, and a discussion of interviewer responsibilities.

Although this book does not explicitly address theory, it contributes to the practice of American Indian research and reflects the philosophy of Indigenous methodology, which is rooted in Indigenous knowledge and has been informed by the work of many Indigenous scholars. Sandy Grande (Red Pedagogy), Bryan Brayboy (Tribal Critical Race Theory), and Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Decolonizing Methodologies) draw on Indigenous methodologies to embrace traditional knowledge and wisdom of ancestors, apply critical theories of education, promote an education for decolonization, address the needs of tribal people, validate tribal beliefs and philosophies, acknowledge oral history as complex sources of knowledge, and reclaim control over Indigenous ways of knowing by planning and implementing research strategies. This book contributes to this body of work and is unique in that it is a manual that has been developed to assist tribal communities in collecting oral history from their own community members. It encourages tribal control of research projects, emphasizes tribal needs and protocol, and provides a practical guide to planning, collecting, and preserving oral history while protecting, respecting, and honoring a narrator’s experience.

Joanna Baxter of the IQSCM on Quilt House

What a wonderful flavor your publication QUILT HOUSE the International Quilt Study Center and Museum has. Personalities emerge with all their genuine qualities. This is a treasure and saves many of us who have been “in on it” as volunteers the effort of explaining the whole evolution of Quilt House to our guests and yes, even our family members who wondered what we have been doing for the last 20 years. As a member of the committee for Nebraska Quilts and Quiltmakers and as a volunteer for the IQSCM since its beginning I appreciate the skills and talents that you generously invested in this story.

The American Indian Oral History Manual: Making Many Voices Heard. By Charles E. Trimble, Barbara W. Sommer, and Mary Kay Quinlan (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2008). Pp. 160. Notes, index, sample forms. ISBN 978-1-59874-148-3. Paperback.

The result of a collaboration by three scholars – two oral historians and a Native American historian and human rights activist – this slender volume sets about primarily to provide guidance to tribal leaders who contemplate establishing oral history projects for their communities. Additionally, it serves as a guide for non-native oral historians who may wish to seek involvement in recording the oral history of indigenous peoples.

Until the appearance of this book, very little has been published on the methodology of oral history with Native Americans. Aside from a master’s thesis and three or four articles on teaching indigenous school children how to capture the oral history of their families and tribes, the only other oral history guide on this subject, also written by Trimble, Sommer, and Quinlan, is a manual for conducting oral history projects with Native American World War II veterans, published in 2005. The significance of The American Indian Oral History Manual, is that it stands almost alone in the literature about the practice of modern oral history with indigenous peoples.

Citing more than forty standard works from leaders in the field of oral history, the authors clearly understand their topic and provide very helpful endnotes at the end of each chapter. The book is well-written, clear, and concise. Organized into chapters that follow the logical progression of thought that a person would have when contemplating creating an oral history project, the book presents material in a way that is easy to follow and should be very helpful to people unfamiliar with modern oral history, as well as seasoned oral historians. The book covers: indigenous oral history; legal and ethical issues; project planning; equipment and budgets; interview preparation; processing the interview; and using oral information. Appendices include fourteen helpful sample oral history forms, the complete guidelines of the Oral History Association, and a six-page list of selected sources for additional information. Together with the three-page bibliography, this list of sources provides citations to much material that would be of use to scholars wishing to learn more about the topic.

Well-grounded in accepted oral history practice, the manual offers sound advice on the basics of oral history. With a special eye toward tribal leaders, the book includes examples of ways in which oral history has been used by and for Native Americans to share information with members of their communities and outsiders. Going beyond the oral history basics, the book offers insight into the challenges of recording the words of indigenous persons. Emphasizing cultural sensitivity and an awareness of protocol in the collection of oral history, the authors provide guidance on working thoughtfully and respectfully with Native Americans. Because of the sound oral history guidelines offered in the book, it would be a useful resource for anyone who wants to become an oral historian, but the additional information it contains, specific to the needs and interests of Native Americans, makes it invaluable to anyone who contemplates conducting oral history with indigenous peoples.

Extremely relevant to the field of oral history, The American Indian Oral History Manual provides clear, succinct current oral history guidelines for nations whose history is often based largely on oral tradition. Additionally, experienced oral historians stand to learn much from this manual about the special circumstances of oral history with and for Native Americans. This book is a must-read for anyone thinking of working on an oral history project with indigenous peoples.

Michelle M. Mears Temple, Texas

Review in Sound Historian, the Journal of the Texas Oral History Association, Volume 14, 2012:116-117.

Message from Oxford Journals Clippings
Oral History, vol 37, no 2, Summer Fall 2010

THE ORAL HISTORY MANUAL . By Barbara W. Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan. 2nd ed. Lanham, MD : AltaMira Press , 2009 . 121 pp. Softbound, $32.95. THE AMERICAN INDIAN ORAL HISTORY MANUAL: MAKING MANY VOICES HEARD . By Charles E. Trimble, Barbara W. Sommer, and Mary Kay Quinlan. Walnut Creek, CA : Left Coast Press, Inc. , 2008 . 160 pp; Softbound, $22.95.

Every oral historian’s library should start with a good “ manual ” of the how-to variety. A manual can be essential to turn our ideas into a concrete oral history project, with tips on developing a mission statement, choosing and protecting narrators, suggested forms to keep the oral history organized, and what to do about archiving when the histories have been collected.

One particularly valuable contribution of a good manual is helping to safeguard and disseminate the efforts of the Oral History Association (OHA) to establish professional standards and protocols. As new issues arise, it is necessary to revise the ways oral history is recorded, preserved, and used. I mention this because guidelines are essential to establish and maintain a professional and ethical standard for oral history, whether it is for a library project, a historical society, a classroom, a community, or an indigenous or ethnic culture.

Recently, two very good manuals that refl ect all these objectives have become available, both sharing the considerable oral history experience of veteran manual writers, Barbara Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan, and one introducing a new name. The Oral History Manual was fi rst published in 2002 by Barbara Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan. Immediately, classrooms and communities adopted it as a clear and concise discussion of the process of oral history. It has become the standard manual for most community and academic oral history projects. However, the challenges of a rapidly changing world of digital communication have brought forward a revised second edition even before the decade had ended. Newcomers to oral history and old-hand interviewers alike should beware of venturing forth without fi rst confi rming their plans and techniques through a careful reading of the new edition of this standard reference.

by Richard Langer on August 26, 2010
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In the second book reviewed here, The American Indian Oral History Manual, Making Many Voices Heard , Sommer and Quinlan were joined by Charles Trimble, a member of the Oglala Sioux and founder of the American Indian Press Association, to apply the complex subject of oral history to the oral culture of Native Americans. While this manual is must reading for anyone contemplating an oral history project involving Native American narrators or societies, its approach will be of great value to historians working with any ethnic group.

Interestingly, the authors point out that both the OHA protocols and tribal traditions are based on the fundamental principle of respecting and protecting narrators who give their stories and the stories they tell. “ Native and non-Native researchers alike are wise to remember the overarching ethical principle: oral history narrators must never be exploited and always are entitled to respect, ” the authors emphasize. Adding later, “ . . . the fi rst people the stories belong to is the interviewees . . . ” (35).

Illustrating a model response to these types of concerns, the authors tell the story of a National Park Service (NPS) project which documented information about the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre. The NPS raised many highly sensitive issues in the use of oral history to determine the precise location where a group of soldiers massacred some 160 Indians, mostly women and children. The authors give a detailed outline of how the project directors worked out the standards and priorities for this Native American oral history (35 – 37). Examples such as this are numerous throughout the manual, demonstrating the authors ’ commitment to upholding specifi c standards and their knowledge of oral history.

Distinguishing the Native American manual from other oral history manuals is the use of the term “ archival oral history. ” Standard oral history protocol relies on memories of fi rst-hand (eyewitness) experiences, whereas traditional information (i.e., indigenous narratives) is “ part of a person’s memory ” but does not rely on seeing and being there on a certain date, time, or place. They point out that information may not rest with the person who has the knowledge but to a family, clan, or tribe as “ a memory heirloom ” (15). Archival oral history takes into account the layers of meaning in indigenous language, representing years or centuries of knowledge, including myths and legends passed down orally from one generation to the next. Thus, oral history of Native Americans is a collective cultural memory, the authors point out. The stories ’ importance is not primarily historical but rather sacred to the people.

Another cross-cultural balancing act is to protect cultural and sacred secrets of the Native American while respecting rights of free expression.

by Richard Langer on August 26, 2010
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Given the importance of such “ meaning documentation, ” the authors stress the importance of fully informed participants and trained interviewers; further, they emphasize that project managers keep complete records, and when it comes time to share the information, that it be described in detail and accepted by all parties. It may also be necessary to have translators and transcribers work together to ensure the information on paper is accurate. An Advisory Board, say the authors, is advisable to ensure the project represents the tribal government, community elders, project funders, and others who support the work. Any person or institution thinking of an American Indian oral history project must consider this manual for its practicality, style, and content.

Both manuals clearly explain the fundamentals of oral history techniques, such as how the interaction of interviewer and narrator infl uences most aspects of the interview, from how a question is phrased to how the response is understood. The new digital technology used to record and preserve the interview brings with it additional responsibilities for accurately recording and transcribing the meaning as well as the language.

The revised edition of The Oral History Manual brings readers almost up-todate with the latest in digital technology — “ almost ” because the rapid pace of technology change outpaces any written work’s ability to tell the whole story. Obviously, indigenous languages must be heard within their context to be fully understood, which means that quite often the written word, no matter how carefully transcribed, does not suffi ce. Thus, having accessible, up-to-date audio technology is all-important in Native oral history documentation. This subject, broadly, is quite current in oral history circles. For example, William Schneider wrote about the complexity of “ differential understanding through retelling ” in his book Living with Stories: Telling, Retelling, and Remembering (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2008; reviewed in The Oral History Review 36:2: 324 by John Wolford). The subtitle of The American Indian Oral History Manual is “ making many voices heard , ” which makes the same point: without an audio- or video-recorded history that documents the many layers of understanding, we would lose many signifi cant voices.

Both manuals have excellent detailed instructions for planning the project, preparing the budget, suggestions for equipment, preparing for the interview, processing the interview, and using the information for various products. The appendices of both manuals provide a copy of OHA’s Oral History Evaluation Guidelines, sample forms, excellent bibliographies, and guides to available resources. If the goal of oral history research is to make meanings from the stories of those interviewed, then those stories must be understood within the culture of the people telling them. These manuals each can help any oral historian reach that goal.

Linda P. Wood
Retired, South Kingstown High School Library
Media Specialist
doi: 10.1093/ohr/ohq091
Advance Access publication 16 July 2010
by Richard Langer on August 26, 2010