How (and Why) to Conduct an Oral History

Penn State Behrend archivist offers tips to help you record a little history

By Heather Cass

Publications Manager, Penn State Behrend

With nearly all extracurricular activities, sporting events, parties and concerts canceled to prevent the spread of COVID-19, you may have a little free time on your hands. One pandemic-safe activity you can do is conduct oral histories with family members, many of whom may be eager to chat with you on the phone and answer all the questions you can come up with.

For Jane Ingold, a reference and instruction librarian and archivist atPenn State Behrend’s John M. Lilley Library, one of the hardest things about doing an oral history is not turning it into a conversation.

“The job of the interviewer is to ask a question and then be quiet,” Ingold said. “This can be hard for me because I get excited about what they are saying and interrupt. I really have to avoid that temptation and let them do the talking.”

Ingold is passionate about the college’s history and has worked hard to preserve a variety of items, including nearly sixty oral histories that she has recorded with Penn State Behrend community members, from first-generation faculty members and alumni to members of the Behrend family who donated Glenhill Farm for the establishment of the college.

We talked with Ingold to learn more about oral histories, why they are important, how she records them and who some of her favorite interview subjects have been so far.

Why are oral histories important?

History books give you the big-picture events. Oral histories give you access to the daily lives of people and often they uncover small pieces of information that bring the past to life. When I interviewed Dick and Bill Sayre, the grandsons of Ernst and Mary Behrend (who donated their farmland to develop Penn State Behrend), they told me that the reason that their grandparents relocated from their mansion on the grounds of Hammermill (the paper plant they owned in east Erie) to Harborcreek Township was that Mary was tired of her house being filled with sawdust. That detail really allows you to imagine the sight and smell of that grittiness in the air near the mill and why Mary wanted to be miles away from it.

Who should people interview?

Though you could start with the oldest person for obvious reasons, you might ask yourself who in your family tells the best stories, the old ones you’ve heard over and over. Interviewing someone who you know will talk comfortably and openly will help you get your feet wet and ease into the process.

How should people prepare for an interview?

You’ll need something to record with and that can be as simple as your phone, tablet, or computer, or a digital recorder. When you start working on family genealogy, experts advise that you write down everything you already know about the person you are interviewing, and that advice works with oral history, too. Write down some of the stories that you have heard, names of people you want to ask them about, places the person has lived, jobs they’ve had, pets, hobbies, etc. This will help you come up with questions.

What types of questions should they ask?

I start all my interviews by stating my name and the name of the person I am interviewing as well as the date and the location of the interview. Since I do some of my interviews over the phone, we may be in two different locations. I ask them to state their full name, and date and place of birth. I have several lists of questions, depending on who I’m interviewing. These questions revolve around the interviewee’s relationship to Behrend, i.e., alumni, faculty and staff, Hammermill employees, and folks who knew the Behrend family. I also ask questions based on stories I’ve heard about the particular person. For instance, I asked retired math professor Bill Patterson about all the photographs he took. He was at Behrend from 1953 to 1989 and he enjoyed photography. He took most of the photos that we have in our oldest archives. There is a nice list of questions here and here.

What question always garners you an interesting response?

“Is there anything you hoped that I would ask that I haven’t?” Sometimes when I ask that question, I learn about events or people that I didn’t know that I should ask them about.

What method do you use to record?

I started doing them over the phone when necessary, though I prefer to do them in person, if possible. I use a Tascam DR-40 Linear PCM Recorder, but you can just as easily record them with an app on your computer or cell phone.

Any tips for recording oral histories? What have you learned the hard way?

Make sure that you have extra batteries, that any cords are plugged in securely, and that you have enough space (memory or tape) to record the interview. Also, I try to control the ambient sound as much as possible, which is more difficult if you are doing the interview in someone’s home. This is especially important if they are on the phone and you can’t see their environment. Don’t be shy about asking them to find a quiet room and close the door while you do the interview. Also, I’ve learned to ask before I start recording if there is something they would prefer not to talk about, such as a loved one’s death or a traumatic event.

Do you then transcribe all of your oral histories?

I have had some students work on transcription in the past. We have now subscribed to a service called Trint that makes an electronic transcription, but it still has to be edited. Over time, the software learns the words that you commonly use. For instance, it always thinks Behrend is baron and makes Hammermill two words, hammer mill. The next time I upload new recordings, however, it should translate those properly. Most of the editing is being done by the library staff and it’s something we’ve been able to get caught up on while working remotely this spring.

Who has been your favorite or most surprising interview?

I can’t pick one favorite, but I’ve talked to a lot of wonderful people like Harry Hahn, a Hammermill retiree who died at 107 a few years ago. He was a champion of our archives and brought us lots of goodies. I also spoke with Marie Hatie Taylor, a woman the Behrend family practically adopted after her father died in the influenza epidemic.

Can people hear or read the oral histories you’ve completed anywhere?

We haven’t put them on the website yet, but we hope to in the future! I also plan pan to use some of them in future exhibits at Lilley Library.


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