Dan Hurley: How to do oral history

Roundup: Talking About History

[Dan Hurley is assistant vice president for history and research at the Cincinnati Museum Center. He also serves as the staff historian for Channel 12 News and is executive producer of Local 12 Newsmakers. Reach him at dhurley@cincymuseum.org.]

... The power of Ken Burns' "The War" on PBS is that it is filled with voices of ordinary people. In Burns' documentary, those voices come from two primary sources, oral history interviews with people who participated in the war and the dramatic reading of letters written by ordinary soldiers and civilians in the 1940s. The voices of politicians and generals are present only to carry the story forward from one event to the next.

Oral history was barely mentioned when I was in graduate school, but since then I have been captivated by its potential and have interviewed hundreds of people. Some have been famous, like Charlie Taft, Theodore Berry and William Mallory, but most never made a headline. Many of those thought they had nothing of interest to tell, but turned out to be utterly fascinating. Over 25 years I have learned a few things about doing oral history.

Ask open-ended questions and see where the person takes you. Too often we ask questions that try to squeeze people into the tidy pigeonholes of history. If a person grew up in the 1930s, many people assume that their life must have been totally defined by the Great Depression. But, as Studs Terkle demonstrated in "Hard Times," not everyone lost their job and ended up in a soup line; some people actually got rich.

Listen carefully to the names, terms and phrases a person uses and be prepared to ask follow-up questions. During a session with Bill Mallory, while he talked about his mother and her West End neighbors betting the numbers, he mentioned buying "dream books." I had never heard of a dream book (an aid to seeking good luck in betting), but it opened up a revealing discussion about the life of working-class people....

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