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How to collect and record oral histories

Professor of history David Carey, Jr., Ph.D., shares four important steps for collecting oral histories

David Carey, Jr., Ph.D., is a professor of history and the Doehler Chair in history at Loyola University Maryland.

This spring Carey is teaching a 400-level history course called Oral Histories and Philanthropy in the Americas, and his students are collecting oral histories through the Esperanza Center, a comprehensive resource center for immigrants in Baltimore.

This service-learning course provides students with the foundation and the skills to understand, design, execute, and work with oral history interviews in research projects, including the basics of oral history interview practices, ethics, and techniques such as digitally recording, transcribing, and archiving an interview. Students are providing stories to support the Esperanza Center’s grant applications, marketing materials, and fundraising efforts.

“Dr. Carey emphasizes that oral history is important and there is a methodology to the practice,” says Kaylin Malmquist, ’21, a Global Studies and Spanish language and literature double major who is taking the class. “Each interview is unique and requires different skillsets.”

Carey shares some important steps for collecting oral histories with Loyola magazine.

Illustration of three people standing together
Step 1:

Identify a group of people or community

Through Carey’s course, students are interviewing Latin American immigrants who share their experiences of immigration and of life in Baltimore and in the United States.

“A lot of sharing is based upon personal relationships and networking. I’ve worked with the Esperanza Center ever since I began teaching at Loyola, so there is both an institutional and personal relationship there,” Carey says.

As a graduate student at Tulane University, Carey became interested in the country and culture of Guatemala. Carey traveled to Guatemala to learn one of the Mayan languages, Kaqchikel. He discovered that the Kaqchikel Maya understandings of the past were not included in written history and became motivated to better learn Kaqchikel to conduct interviews, so that he could tell history from indigenous people’s perspectives.

“In Guatemala, it was different because I was going up to the rural highlands and I knew people who had taught me the language, so I started gathering stories from them and their families. It included a lot of networking, but I also took a different approach where I introduced myself to the mayor of this highland town. I told him I wanted to learn about history. In that way, I had both formal and informal networks.”

Oral histories are an attempt to amplify voices that otherwise aren’t included in historical narratives,” Carey explains. “They can be people who are marginalized because of race, gender, sexuality, religion, whatever it might be—which is not to say that people who are in positions of power aren’t interviewed for oral history interviews. One of the most powerful aspects [of gathering oral histories] is to broaden our understanding of perspectives from the past. Illustration of a pen and signature on a document
Step 2:

Lay out a consent process

Consent is at the heart of the interview—and of the sharing of the interview.

“Make sure the interviewee’s rights are front and center,” Carey emphasizes.

The interviewees need to know that at any point during the interview, they can step out. After the interview is over, interviewees are permitted to ask you not to use the interview.

Illustration of an ear with sound waves going into it
Step 3:

Be an active listener

When creating and gathering oral histories, it is important to work in collaboration with the interviewee.

According to Carey, developing trust and allowing the interviewee to feel comfortable is a key component to active listening. Along with creating trust, interviewers must approach interviews with awareness. It is possible that traumatic experiences and topics can arise during interviews.

The interviewer must concentrate and focus on what the interviewee is saying—and be open to allowing them to control the interview to a certain extent, says Carey.

“Allow them to dictate what topics you might want to cover and try to pursue their interests. They may have more interesting stories they want to tell you that you hadn’t even thought about or considered.”

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Step 4:

Step 4: Finalize the interview

It is best practice to provide the interviewee with a recorded and printed transcript from the interview and to share with them where the final interviews will be stored—and how they may be used in the future.

The final interviews—two of which were conducted in Spanish—from Carey’s course, for example, are stored at the Loyola/Notre Dame Library for public use of historians, students, scholars, alumni, and other interested individuals.


More about Oral Histories and Philanthropy in the Americas (HS485)

The Oral Histories and Philanthropy in the Americas service-learning course has offered Loyola students an opportunity to learn more about collecting oral histories and providing these services to the Baltimore community. This semester, Carey has mentored 12 students in the collection process. They also interviewed Loyola alumni with a particular focus on the 50-year anniversary of the integration of female students at Loyola.

For his course, HS485, Carey collaborated with Stephanie Brizee, Ph.D., Loyola’s director of planned giving; Bill Romani, Ph.D., entrepreneur in residence of Loyola’s Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship; and Jenny Kinniff, head archivist of the Loyola/Notre Dame library.

Brizee enriched the course by providing different perspectives of philanthropy and arranging the Loyola alumni who were interviewed by the students. Romani intertwined the personal aspect of collecting oral histories and philanthropy by encouraging students to think about how social justice issues pertained to their core values. Kinniff provided additional insight toward collecting oral histories—including guidance and best practices for a successful remote and oral history interview—and shared her own expertise and scholarship in conducting oral history projects; she also facilitated the digital archiving process for the students.

“Ultimately, this class asks students to develop oral history research skills in the context of understanding the power of stories and the power of service,” Brizee says.

“They experience first-hand the transformational process of philanthropy and service, and they are encouraged to reflect on what their own service and philanthropy might look like as they graduate and seek to live out the Jesuit aspiration of becoming ‘people for others’.”

More about the Esperanza Center

The Esperanza Center is a program of Catholic Charities that offers services to immigrants in the Baltimore metropolitan area including English as a Second Language instruction, workforce development, immigration legal services, family literacy classes, health services, family reunification, citizenship classes, and social service referrals.

More about Professor David Carey, Jr., Ph.D.

David Carey, Jr., Ph.D., is the author of more than 30 peer-reviewed articles and essays and several books, including I Ask for Justice: Maya Women, Dictators, and Crime in Guatemala, 1898-1944 (co-recipient of the 2015 Latin American Studies Association Bryce Wood Book Award), Engendering Mayan History: Kaqchikel Women as Agents and Conduits of the Past, and Oral History in Latin America: Unlocking the Spoken Archive and Violence. He also has edited three books: Distilling the Influence of Alcohol: Aguardiente in Guatemalan History, Crime in Latin America: Representations and Politics (co-edited with Gema Santamaría), and Latino Voices in New England (co-edited with Robert Atkinson).

Before joining the faculty at Loyola in 2014, Carey was a professor of history and women and gender studies and served as associate dean of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the University of Southern Maine. His teaching and research focus on immigration, gender, ethnicity, indigenous peoples, environmental change, health and illness, and oral history.