Date of this Version
On April 4, 2008, the University of La Verne Honors Program celebrated its twentieth anniversary with a benefit dinner. The main entertainment for the night was a twenty-minute video documentary based on excerpts from oral histories I had completed with former students and faculty of the program. As students and faculty sat side by side and watched the documentary, I could see people in the audience smiling or nodding their heads in agreement with the person speaking on screen. An occasional “Hey, that’s me!” was followed by laughter from the crowd. After the documentary, a discussion followed that added to the memories collected in the documentary as individual faculty and students stood up and reminisced about their experiences in the honors program. The stories gleaned from oral histories and incorporated into the film documentary had transformed a large, formal dinner into a warm, intimate setting.
Ten months earlier, when the founding director of our honors program, Dr. Andrea Labinger, asked me to do an oral history of our honors program for its twentieth-anniversary benefit dinner, I found myself enthusiastically agreeing to go one step further and use the oral histories to create a video documentary. To make this project work, however, I knew that I would need a lot of support from people on campus who had the equipment and technological skills required to do a good job. While the main reason that we embarked on this project was to put some oral histories together to entertain guests at our honor program dinner, we were also committed to the task of gathering important images and distinct, first-person experiences that could articulate the importance of our program: we wanted our finished documentary to reflect the high standards of our program so that it could potentially serve as a supplemental resource for future grant applications, fundraising events, and institutional program assessments.
Because they are preserved, documentations through oral history provide valuable institutional memory to honors programs that lack administrative or staff continuity. Oral histories have been referred to as “spoken memory” or “personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews”( Ritchie 1). They are usually documented through audio or (more recently) digital recordings, with the interviewer asking the interviewee, otherwise known as the narrator, specific questions prepared in advance. With the accessibility of video and computer editing equipment, more and more oral histories are now both audio- and videotaped. Unlike news reporting, the entire taped dialogue between the interviewer and the narrator is usually transcribed and archived in a library or archive for future use.
As a discipline, oral history has ethical and legal guidelines as well as professional standards. For students and faculty new to oral history, two good sources of information about oral history are The Oral History Manual by Barbara Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan and Doing Oral History by Donald Ritchie. Both books include the “Principles and Standards of the Oral History Association” as well as forms and documents commonly used in the field. A good online source is the Oral History Association’s website, , which also has valuable resources such as regional oral history workshops and institutes for both the professional and the amateur oral historian.