The Archive Lady: Finding Oral Histories in an Archive
Julie in California asks: “I have decided to take your advice after listening to one of your lectures and seek out any oral histories for my ancestors that might be located in an archive. Can you please give me some advice or tips on how to find oral histories?”
Julie asks a great question about locating oral histories. Oral histories are a great resource for genealogists. Seeking out oral histories is something every genealogist should have on their “To-Do List”.
Oral histories usually consist of voice recordings of people who are telling their life story or recounting their personal experience during a particular event. Oral histories could also be found as printed and transcribed interviews. In some situations, the person recounted their story to someone and then their story was typed up like a transcribed conversation or Q&A session.
In the Houston County, Tennessee Archives we have oral histories of surviving WWII Veterans on video that were compiled in the 1990’s. Sadly, many of these veterans have passed on, but we have their voices and images on video as they recount their service during the war. These same oral history videos have been transcribed and made available in written format.
Many oral histories recount local residents telling about their experiences growing up in a particular area or their personal experience during The Great Flood, The Big Tornado or The Historic Hurricane. Natural disasters affected our ancestors as they affect us today and some of these stories have been captured on video, audio or in written transcripts.
So, where are genealogists to find oral histories in the archive? Oral histories are not normally available on the shelves in the research area of the archive. They will typically be found in the records storage area or “the stacks” as they are called by archivists. Oral histories will be found in individual collections or they could be in a collection of many oral histories.
When researching at a particular archive, ask the archivist if they have any oral histories in their collections. If they have these types of records, they should be able to provide you with an index or some direction as to what they have available. Oral histories are usually found in the manuscript collections section in an archive. Whether they are individual histories that are in specific collections or a collection of oral histories in the same collection, manuscript collections are where archivists generally archive oral histories.
The local historical society or genealogical society might have had an oral history project in the past and they may have oral histories in their records collections. Many historical and genealogical societies collect and preserve records and are considered an archive. Contacting the local society and asking if they have any oral histories is a great idea.
Finding oral histories online may be a bit of a challenge, but not all together impossible. There are many organizations that are putting their oral histories online for researchers. One such organization is the Oral History Program, Battleship New Jersey Museum & Memorial (https://www.battleshipnewjersey.org/the-ship/oral-history/)
Another long running oral history project is the Carnegie Corporation Oral History Project at Columbia University Libraries Oral History Research Office (http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/digital/collections/oral_hist/carnegie/)
It is important to check with all local archives, libraries, museums and universities in the area where your ancestor lived to find out if there are any oral histories that are being preserved. Locating an audio recording or transcript of your ancestor telling the story of their life or what they experienced would be priceless.
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Melissa Barker lives in Tennessee Ridge, Tennessee. She is the Houston County (TN) Archivist and a Professional Genealogist. She writes the blog, A Genealogist in the Archives, and has been researching her own family for over 26 years. She lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation.
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