August 2005 // Volume 43 // Number 4 // Tools of the Trade // 4TOT2

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Voices from the Past, Wisdom for the Present and Future: Capturing and Learning from Oral History

"What is oral history?" and "How can capturing oral history enhance Extension program development and impact reporting?" are two of the questions explored in this article. In addition, the process and steps for completing an oral history project are outlined.

Lisa Phelps
Assistant Extension Professor
University of Maine Cooperative Extension
Portland, Maine


"I have been with Extension for most of my life. Extension has always been important to me and to my parents."--Extension Homemaker

"Extension influenced and helped my family."--Extension Homemaker

These quotes were captured through a recent oral history project I conducted with a local Extension homemakers group. A component of my Extension faculty role is to provide educational support and resources to Extension homemakers. The oral history project was inspired by my first meeting with the homemakers, who shared community history, their Extension history, and stories of the influence that Extension has had on their lives. As an added benefit, I found being part of this oral history project enhanced my Extension program development and impact reporting skills.

What Is Oral History?

Oral history can be defined as a series of interviews in a question-and-answer format, conducted by an interviewer with an interest in the subject matter. The interviewee is usually knowledgeable about the historical event or subject of interest. Information is then shared with others, usually in a written format (Roy, 1993).

Why Oral History?

Recording oral history not only provides a written account of past events, it offers opportunities to value, appreciate, and learn from the past. This is especially true in a primarily oral culture such as the United States (Payne & Lyman, 1994). Ritchie (1997) states that oral historians are no longer just preserving interviews, but increasingly are focusing on how the interviews can be used. Oral historians are now returning the information gathered back to the communities of origin.

The stories gathered through the oral history process offer a rich, real-world context that connects with people at many levels. Using stories as a teaching method has its roots in experiential learning as defined by Dewey (Vozzola, 1998). Haight (2001) affirms that telling and sharing stories offers individuals an opportunity to establish connections with others based on memories. Stories allow for the discovery of patterns and meaning that may have been neglected or unrecognized. They also offer people the opportunity to connect with and be listened to by others, which creates a sense of caring. Through stories, people can reclaim the past and present in new ways. "Humans appear to embrace stories or narratives precisely because they find stories satisfyingly complex, in exact, and concrete. (Vozzola, 1998, p. 290)."

How Do You Conduct an Oral History Project?

Planning Is Essential

Planning for your oral history project is crucial and begins by identifying an historical event or subject of interest. Researching this event or subject before beginning your interviews is central to the success of your project (Moyer, 1999).

Identifying Interview Participants

Using your research, begin to identify interview participants. A short questionnaire administered to potential participants can help you select appropriate and willing interviewees. Draw on your research to formulate the questions. The questionnaire responses will identify participants who will help you learn more about the event or subject you are researching as well as identify other interview participants.

Preparing for the Interview

Kvale (1996) refers to interviewing as a professional conversation with a structure and a specific purpose. Determine if individual or group interviews will be most beneficial for your project. This is usually determined by the nature of the project and the comfort level of the interview participant.

The potential participants must understand that participating in the interview is optional and that if they agree to participate, a mutually agreed upon interview time and location will need to be determined. If confidentiality is an issue, then the participants will be asked to select pseudonyms for themselves. You will also need recording equipment for your interview. Make sure each interview participant is comfortable being recorded and possibly videotaped.

Conducting the Interview

Prepare a list of questions based on your background research to serve as a guide for the interview. When capturing oral history, it is important to use an unstructured interview format in which the interview can evolve based on the responses to the questions (Moyer, 1999). Kvale (1996) refers to this as an "open interview." Usually 60 to 90 minutes is appropriate for a first interview. Once the interview has been completed, you will need to remind the participants that a follow-up interview may need to be scheduled to help clarify answers and responses from the first interview.

After the Interview

Each interview must be transcribed. Share each transcript with the participant to verify accuracy. After the second, more in-depth interviews are completed, reports, programs, and publications can be created from the transcripts. You will need to identify an archive location for your project.

How Is Oral History Useful to Extension Professionals?

Once your project is completed, you can use what you have learned to:

  • Enhance program development,
  • Capture and report program impacts to stakeholders,
  • Share the history with community agencies such as a local historical society,
  • Present community programs,
  • Provide long-term evaluative feedback,
  • Create new programs, and
  • Promote intergenerational programs.

For example, after I completed this oral history project I collaborated with the local historical society and facilitated a community program. As a result of this program more intergenerational programs are being developed in the community.


Capturing the oral history of a group or organization can provide valuable insights into the present and assist in planning for the future. It is important to gather the history before it is lost. Storytelling can be a powerful way of connecting with people, and providing individuals the opportunity to tell their story can be extremely rewarding. It is a tool that Extension professionals can use to support their work in communities.


Haight, B. (2001). Sharing life stories: Acts of intimacy. Generations, 25 (2) June, 90-91.

Kvale, S. (1996). Interviews: An introduction to qualitative research interviewing. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Moyer, J. (1999). Step-by-step guide to oral history. Available at:

Payne, E. M., & Lyman, B. G. (1994). Family and community oral history. Reading   Improvement, 31 (4) Winter, 221-23.

Ritchie, D. A. (1997). Oral history: From sound to print and back again. OAH Magazine of History, 11 (3) Spring, 6-8.

Roy. L. (1993). Planning an oral history project. Journal of Youth Services in Libraries. 6 (4) Summer, 409-413.

Vozzola, E. C. (1998). We dream, you do: "Great" grandmothers teach a lesson in women's changing roles. Teaching of Psychology, 25 (4), 289-291.