A guide to oral history for schools and youth groups
Getting started: the things you need to consider when planning an oral history project
What will your project be about?
You may have a subject/focus in mind such as the anniversary of the founding of your school or WW2 memories. If not, choose a topic related to what you are teaching, a current event or something that’s relevant to your school, pupils or local area.
What is your end goal?
This is about the scope and scale of your project. Are you planning a small number of interviews with people in the community, or are you thinking about a larger-scale project, perhaps creating a website, a booklet, artwork or a play performance? Have a look at some of our Inspiring Ideas.
Your own experience and resources
If you haven’t done any oral history before, speak to someone who has. This could be an adviser at the Oral History Society (link to Regional Networkers page here), someone from your local Record Office/Archives/Museum, or someone who has done a similar project in a school. Can you work with other staff who may have an interest/expertise in aspects of the project? Do you have any recording equipment or editing facilities in school? If not, read our equipment guide.
Who will you interview?
Consider at an early stage the practicalities of interviewing. The people you want to talk to might be very elderly and not very mobile. Where will you interview them? Think about the implications of either recording in school or taking your pupils to where your interviewees are. If you want to make good interviews, you will need a quiet place to record in. Recording in a care home setting or at an event can be complicated and noisy.
There are some ethical considerations here. Most people are happy to share their experiences with students and keen to help, but the interviews could be highly personal and you may be considering putting them online or sharing them in other public forums. You will need to make this clear to anyone you plan to record. (See our ethics section) Depending on your subject matter, a good place to start in your search for good interviewees is the wider school community (staff, support staff, their relatives, governors, community links etc.) School newsletters can also be useful, as are the school’s social media channels. Getting children to write a press release can be part of the learning experience.
Your project group
Who are you planning to work with? A class or whole year group or a particular group of pupils/ young people? Will the project be delivered in curriculum time or in an after-school club? Anything is possible; but the approach and planning will need to take account of numbers, age, ability, availability and special needs of the pupils involved. For example, if it’s after school, bear in mind that pupils are often tired and hungry, and may have other commitments that conflict with your sessions. You may want to buy in professional help (for example, an oral history trainer or a film maker). If so, how will you fund this?
How long will your project last?
A generalisation would be that it always takes longer than you think! Consider that in any interviewing project, you will probably have the following phases: research, training workshops, practice interviews, the actual interviews, reviewing/listening back to the interviews, summarising or transcribing recordings, and sharing the material (which may involve audio or video editing and/or interpretations of some kind).
Training young people to make recordings
Depending on your own experience, you may want support in delivering the sessions. If you don’t have the option to bring in an expert, have a look at our training ideas. There are some ideas and examples of lesson plans and video tutorials online and many organisations have short extracts from interviews on their websites. We have put together a selection of extracts on various subjects which you may want to use.
Images and artefacts
Whatever you do with your recordings, it is likely that you will want some images to go with them (for example, to go with extracts on a website or to use in an exhibition). Encourage interviewees to bring old photos with them. They may also have relevant objects; tools, badges, clothes, newspaper cuttings, documents. You may be able to use these things to prompt the person during the interview. Also take your own photos of every step of your project.
Safety and child protection issues
At the OHS we firmly believe this should be taken seriously but should not be a barrier to involving young people in recording memories and experiences with people they don’t know. Obviously adhere to your own school/ youth group procedures. If you are working with external experts, please make sure they are fully briefed about the cohort they are working with and any school behaviour policies. Sadly we have had examples of oral history practitioners being introduced to a group and then either left on their own, or a teacher remains present but sits at the back and does their own work. Please read our ethics guide for schools.
What will you do with the interviews immediately after you’ve recorded them?
In the excitement and aftermath of recording interviews, you do not want to ‘lose’ or delete the digital files you’ve created. Think about creating a system for identifying, labeling and uploading recordings on to a computer as soon as possible after the event.
What will you do with the interviews long term?
This also needs some consideration and will depend on the type of project you are doing. If you are doing a small number of interviews about your community, you may want to keep the master copies (digital files) in your school archive. It is also respectful to offer a copy of the recording to the interviewee. If you are doing a larger scale project, you should consider talking to your local record office/archives/ museum. They may be able to help; they could add to the learning experience for your pupils (for example, a visit to the archives) and provide a long term place of safe keeping for the interviews.
Do you need permission to use recordings?
The short answer is yes. Whatever the scale of your project or age of the children, it is good practice to consider who owns the recording and who has the right to play it. Have a look at our section on ethics, copyright and consent for schools and our template forms.
Listening back to interviews
There is no doubt that your pupils will record some fascinating material, but few people will listen to the complete unedited interviews (time-consuming; some parts boring) so you will need summaries, with timings, to help people find what interests them. Writing summaries or transcribing parts of the interview may be beyond the ability of some students, so think about who will do it. You will need editing skills to select particularly interesting bits. Audio and video editing is very time-consuming. Bear this in mind when planning your project.
Audio / video editing
Do you have facilities/ software to do this in school? Are there members of staff who can support you or train your group in audio or video editing? Could you make this a cross-curricular project working with your IT department? If not, you may need to get external help.
Will you hold a final event?
Bringing everyone together to share and celebrate what you have discovered during your project is thoroughly recommended. Consider how you can include extracts from your original recordings in the proceedings – this always makes an impact. There are lots of other ways of sharing your project with the public – please let us (the OHS) know about it! We are always delighted to put new case studies on our website and include information on projects in the current work section of the OHS Journal, printed twice a year. Local newspapers, news websites, TV and radio stations will also be interested.