Video technology assists in preservation of oral history

Oral history may be the single most valuable tool in preserving local history. It is the collection of historical information through interviews with knowledgeable sources, using audiotape and videotape.
“Oral history makes it all come alive, much more than reading a textbook about it. It helps you relate it to your own family or community,” Carthage College history professor Tom Noer said.
“History is what we select from the past that’s important. What’s important is often not just World War II, but the daily life of people during World War II,” Noer continued. “And you need to look at the average person, not just the important people.”
You have those average people right in your own circle of family, friends, and acquaintances.
“It’s a good way for not just students, but for everyone to get down something before these people are gone,” he added.
It’s a tale the Cynthia Nelson archivist at the Kenosha History Center hears often.
“Because people are really into genealogy now, I hear more than anything ‘I wish I had asked them that question,’” Nelson said. “But when you’re younger and busier with your life, you take it for granted that we live forever and that you’ll remember that story or person.”
Video is the best choice for oral history interviews, Noer said, because you visually and audibly capture the emotion of the interviewee.
Sometimes a very private person may not want an interview to be recorded because their afraid that it may be posted in cyberspace forever or because they think what they have to say is unimportant.
“You need to tell your subject that history is the daily life of the average person, and we need to know what your life has been like, even though you may not have done anything revolutionary or significant, but it is important,” Noer explained.
Ask revealing questions
Preparing for an interview is essential. Learn all you can about the time period you will be hearing about.
If the person lived through the Great Depression, you should know about the Work Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. If your subject was on the home front during World War Two, read up on rationing.
“It’s all guided by what you are asking. If you don’t ask the right questions, you may not get the right story or you’ll get a different version of a story,” Nelson said. “You can guide oral history, whether its business oral history or personal history, you guide it by the questions you ask.”
“People have to figure out what questions they want to ask, even with their immediate family.”
Making your subject comfortable
If a general question about what it was like to go to high school in the 1950’s doesn’t garner much information, probe deeper by asking specific follow-up questions: What was your favorite or most hated class? How did you get to school in the morning? Did you have an after school job? Who were your friends?
If memory lapses come into play, and a follow up question doesn’t get any more response on the subject, skate past it.
Interviews can also dispel family myths and rumors.
“That’s the most important thing, to pass down the importance of your love and your stories, the true story not the myth stories,” said Nelson. “People have to make sure that they’re actually passing down factual stories and not stories that not may be true.”

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