Oral History

Learn about oral history resources available through Harvard Library.  You will leave knowing how to access existing collections, consider a live example of various methodological elements to conduct oral histories, and learn about support services available to record, transcribe, store and publish your oral histories.

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Oral History Collections at Harvard

Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System Digital Collection: Interviews and Manuals, 1950-1953 (inclusive)
Named the Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System (also known as the Harvard Refugee Interview Project), this was a large scale, unclassified project, based largely on interviews with Soviet émigrés in West Germany, Austria, and the United States, aimed at gaining new insights into strategic psychological and sociological aspects of the Soviet social system. 

Oral Histories at Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America
Get started with archival research on women's oral histories with this guide.

Woodberry Poetry Room Oral History Initiative
Check out video recordings on YouTube of this 2021 series of oral histories on pioneering Boston women poets. Tip: Look for "ORAL HISTORY INITIATIVE" in the title.
 

Find More at Harvard

You may search for interviews and oral histories (whether in textual or audiovisual formats) held in archival collections at Harvard Library. HOLLIS searches all documented collections at Harvard, whereas HOLLIS for Archival Discovery searches only those with finding aids. Although HOLLIS for Archival Discovery covers less material, you may find it easier to parse your search results, especially when you wish to view results at the item level (within collections). Try these approaches:

Search in HOLLIS:
 
  1. To retrieve items available online, do an Advanced Search for interview* OR "oral histor*" (in Subject), with Resource Type "Archives/Manuscripts," then refine your search by selecting "Online" under "Show Only" on the right of your initial result list. Revise the search above by adding your topic in the Keywords or Subject field (for example: African Americans) and resubmitting the search.
     
  2.  To enlarge your results set, you may also leave out the "Online" refinement; if you'd like to limit your search to a specific repository, try the technique of searching for Code: Library + Collection on the "Advanced Search" page.  

Search in HOLLIS for Archival Discovery:
 
  1. To retrieve items available online, search for interview* OR "oral histor*" limited to digital materials.
    Revise the search above by adding your topic (for example: artist*) in the second search box (if you don't see the box, click +).
     
  2. To preview results by collection, search for interview* OR "oral histor*" limited to collectionsRevise the search above by adding your topic (for example: artist*) in the second search box (if you don't see the box, click +). Although this method does not allow you to isolate digitized content, you may find the refinement options on the right side of the screen (refine by repository, subject or names) helpful. Once your select a given collection, you may search within it (e.g., for your topic or the term interview).

Oral History Collections Beyond Harvard

Digital Public Library of America (DPLA)
To find oral histories among the millions of materials from libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural institutions across the United States, search for "oral history," and then use the subject and other refinements to discover oral histories of interest to you.

The HistoryMakers
Contains interviews African Americans who have made a significant contribution in area of American life or culture, or who has been associated with a particular movement or organization that is important in the African American community. Disciplines include Art, Business, Civics, Education, Entertainment, Law, Media, Medicine, Military, Music, Politics, Religion, Science, Sports and Style. Harvard constituents have full access to this database when connecting via Harvard.

Library of Congress Digital Collections
The Library of Congress provides several oral history collections online. To locate them, search the Digital Collections site for "oral history".

Oral History Centers and Collections
Curated by members of the H-OralHist Network.

Oral History Online
An index to worldwide oral history collections, with links to interview-level bibliographic records in English and to full-text materials, audio files and visual files where these are available. 

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage Collections
More than 80,000 historical and contemporary items from the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage's Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections are available in the Smithsonian’s Collections Search Center. Find complete collection descriptions in finding aids and inventories in the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archive, which often include digital surrogates.

South Asian Oral History Project
The SAOHP has been conducted in four phases. Each phase is marked by key historical events that drew South Asians to the United States: 1) 1950s Immigrants, 2) 1960s and 1970s Immigrants, 3) 1980s Immigrants, 4) South Asian classical performing artists (vocalists, instrumentalists and dancers) in the Pacific Northwest. The transcriptions and audio recordings from phase one and the transcription and audio/video recordings from phase two through four are available digitally.

Statue of Liberty Oral History Project: A Record of Living Memory
One of the world’s largest and most diverse chronicles of the American immigrant experience, this resource includes interviews from passengers, families, immigration officials, military personnel, detainees, and former Ellis Island employees. It is available to researchers, students, educators, and the general public.

The Tretter Transgender Oral History Project
A growing collection of oral histories of gender transgression, broadly understood through a trans framework.

Visual History Archive (VHA), USC Shoah Foundation
Created by the Shoah Foundation, this fully indexed and searchable digital repository contains the visual testimony of approximately 55,000 survivors of genocidal wars. The majority of the testimonies are from Holocaust survivors (1939-1945) but the archive also includes survivor testimony from the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda (1994), the Armenian Genocide (1915-23) the Cambodian Genocide, the Guatemalan Genocide (1978-96) and the Nanjing Massacre (1937), among others. For more information about the testimonies, visit the VHA guide. Harvard constituents have full access to this repository when connecting via Harvard.

Library Research Guides for Oral History

Freshman Seminar 64 E Asian American Literature
The "Oral History" section of this guide lists several oral history resources  relevant to researching the Asian American experience in the 1960s.

Oral History and Interviews, Harvard Library Research Guide for History
Compiled by Harvard Librarians, this guide offers strategies for locating oral history interviews, as well as a list of relevant databases and collections.

Oral Histories at Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America
Get started with archival research on women's oral histories with this guide.

Selected Resources to Make Your Own Oral Histories

Harvard-Specific


ArcGIS StoryMaps
An engaging platform for presenting your oral histories.

See the "Conducting Interviews" and "Transcription & Coding" tabs of the Interview Skills page of this guide.
There, you will find technical tools, tips, and assistance available at Harvard.


Beyond Harvard


The Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling at Concordia University
You will find here innovative approaches to oral history, some of which utilize various art forms.

Columbia Center for Oral History Research: Resources
A helpful selection of resources for conducting oral history research.

Handbooks and Guides to Oral History Methodology

ArcGIS StoryMaps
An engaging platform for presenting your oral histories.

The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress: Oral History Interviews
Recommendations for planning an oral history project and tips for conducting interviews

Hajek, A. (2014). Oral History Methodology.
The case study starts with a historical outline of the advent of oral history research in Western society, its strengths and its weaknesses, before it moves to a practical exploration of oral history methodology. It explains how to set up an oral history project, how to conduct interviews and what legal concerns to keep in mind. It also provides details on recording equipment and discusses a number of potential outputs of oral history data.

Oral History Association: Principles and Best Practices
An invaluable document for maintaining an ethical stance as a researcher, with guidance on archiving interviews and managing rights/copyright.

Webinar: Introduction to Oral History and Interviewing, Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, Concordia University

Scholarship & Commentary on Oral History Methodology

Belfast to Boston: Oral History Goes Awry
WNYC Studios' "The Takeaway" speaks with Boston Globe columnist, Kevin Cullen, about how Boston College's well meaning attempt to promote truth and reconciliation around the Troubles backfired on the ground in Belfast.

Blee, K. (1993). Evidence, Empathy, and Ethics: Lessons from Oral Histories of the Klan. The Journal of American History, 80(2), 596-606. doi:10.2307/2079873
Critically examines issues that arise in oral history methodology around the life stories of ordinary people whose political agendas are unsavory, dangerous, or deliberately deceptive.

Davis, M., & Kennedy, E. (1986). Oral History and the Study of Sexuality in the Lesbian Community: Buffalo, New York, 1940-1960. Feminist Studies, 12(1), 7-26. doi:10.2307/3177981
This article explores the role of sexuality in the cultural and political development of the Buffalo lesbian community.

Portelli, Alessandro. (2010). The death of Luigi Trastulli. Memory and event - memory and fact. Anuarul Institutului De Istorie Orală : AIO, 12, 245-274.
Luigi Trastulli, a young steel worker in Terni, Italy, died in an altercation with police in 1949, when workers left the factory to protest against a North-Atlantic Treaty signed by the Italian Government. The strike, confrontation and assassination greatly impacted the identity and culture of Terni. This essay discusses how the event has been portrayed and interpreted over the years in both official and oral sources. The essay linked above is in Italian. For an English language translation, see The Death of Luigi Trastulli, and Other Stories.

Portelli, Alessandro (2016). What makes oral history different. In Perks, Robert and Alistair Thomson, The Oral History Reader, Routledge, p. 68-78.
Publisher abstract: "There seems to be a fear that once the floodgates of orality are opened, writing (and rationality along with it) will be swept out as if by a spontaneous uncontrollable mass of fluid, amorphous material. But this attitude blinds us to the fact that our awe of writing has distorted our perception of language and communication to the point where we no longer understand either orality or the nature of writing itself. As a matter of fact, written and oral sources are not mutually exclusive. They have common as well as autonomous characteristics, and specific functions which only either one can fill (or which one set of sources fills better than the other). Therefore, they require different specific interpretative instruments. But the undervaluing and the overvaluing of oral sources end up by cancelling out specific qualities, turning these sources either into mere supports for traditional written sources, or into an illusory cure for all ills. This chapter will attempt to suggest some of the ways in which oral history is intrinsically different, and therefore specifically useful."

Participative Resources and Projects for Oral History