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Amelia Fry interviews Helen Gahagan; both are seated at a table piled with papers, teacups, and a microphone.

Oral History Center : For teachers + students

Recording and preserving the history of California and our interconnected world

Curriculum

Welcome to the Oral History Classroom Education Resources webpage.

Oral History interviewing

Find recommendations for how to build a class in which the students conduct interviews. For education during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is also information on how to record interviews using Zoom.

How to Build a Class Around Oral History

Recording Oral History Using Zoom

General resources

Get the information you need to use existing oral histories in the classroom, with a guide for how to use our advanced search tool to find content in our oral history collection, as well as examples of different types of assignments students could do using our oral histories.

How to use our advanced search tool to find material from among our 4,000+ interviews!

HIV / AIDS curriculum resources

Selma Dritz at chalkboard
This grade 11 curriculum module was designed for teaching the history of epidemics in U.S. history. Although there is a brief primer on the broad patterns of epidemics in U.S. history, there is a strong focus on the primary sources of our collection of interviews about the early years of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco.

This module makes extensive use of our seven-episode First Response podcast, which provides an accessible history of the epidemic using the interviews from our collection. Use the podcast to help students identify themes in the interviews that will help them think about their assignments. There is suggested content for assignments in four topic areas: women and gender in the epidemic; researchers hunting for an unknown disease in different ways; public health and early treatments for an unknown disease; and the struggle for gay rights in the context of the epidemic. Each of these topics was touched on in the podcast, but there is plenty of room for students to take them further in their assignments. However, it should be a requirement that they not merely duplicate the information that is in the podcast.

Finally, there is a page of additional online primary sources for the students to consult. The actual nature of the assignments depends on your class level. We had in mind a grade 11 class of motivated students.

Introduction to Epidemics in History Module

The AIDS Archive Lesson Plan: Oral History as Evidence

Historical HIV/AIDS General Resources

HIV-AIDS Assignments Grade 11

This document contains the following assignments:

  • Sample assignment to work on together as a class
  • Women on the Front Lines: Gender, Identity, and Values
  • Virus Hunters: The Search for HIV
  • The Early Search for Treatments
  • Pride and Prejudice: Gay Rights vs. Collective Responsibilities in the Shadow of AIDS

See also an example of the Virus Hunters assignment completed by a high school student (rising sophomore). This project took approximately 20 hours: Virus Hunters Newsletter.

Photo: Selma Dritz, M.D. (1982), early AIDS researcher, epidemiologist, and San Francisco public health official, from the Sally Hughes AIDS research collection at UCSF, on Calisphere. Photo by Jerry Telfer, San Francisco Chronicle.  

Interview tips

Willa Baum
Tips for conducting an oral history interview

During transformative times in history like these, it’s important to document the lives of everyday citizens. Willa Baum (pictured above), a pioneer in oral history and former director of the Oral History Center, shared the following tips on conducting oral histories.

1. An interview is not a dialogue. The whole point of the interview is to get the narrator to tell her story. Limit your own remarks to a few pleasantries to break the ice, then brief questions to guide her along. It is not necessary to give her the details of your great-grandmother's trip in a covered wagon in order to get her to tell you about her grandfather's trip to California. Just say, "I understand your grandfather came around the Horn to California. What did he tell you about the trip?"

2. Ask questions that require more of an answer than "yes" or "no." Start with "why," "how," "where," "what kind of ..." Instead of "Was Henry Miller a good boss?" ask "What did the cowhands think of Henry Miller as a boss?"

3. Ask one question at a time. Sometimes interviewers ask a series of questions all at once. Probably the narrator will answer only the first or last one. You will catch this kind of questioning when you listen through the tape after the session, and you can avoid it the next time.

4. Ask brief questions. We all know the irrepressible speech-maker who, when questions are called for at the end of a lecture, gets up and asks five-minute questions. It is unlikely that the narrator is so dull that it takes more than a sentence or two for her to understand the question.

5. Start with questions that are not controversial; save the delicate questions, if there are any, until you have become better acquainted. A good place to begin is with the narrator's youth and background.

6. Don't let periods of silence fluster you. Give your narrator a chance to think of what she wants to add before you hustle her along with the next question. Relax, write a few words on your notepad. The sure sign of a beginning interviewer is a tape where every brief pause signals the next question.

7. Don't worry if your questions are not as beautifully phrased as you would like them to be for posterity. A few fumbled questions will help put your narrator at ease as she realizes that you are not perfect and she need not worry if she isn't either. It is not necessary to practice fumbling a few questions; most of us are nervous enough to do that naturally.

8. Don't interrupt a good story because you have thought of a question, or because your narrator is straying from the planned outline. If the information is pertinent, let her go on, but jot down your questions on your notepad so you will remember to ask it later.

9. If your narrator does stray into subjects that are not pertinent (the most common problems are to follow some family member's children or to get into a series of family medical problems), try to pull her back as quickly as possible. "Before we move on, I'd like to find out how the closing of the mine in 1935 affected your family's finances. Do you remember that?"

10. It is often hard for a narrator to describe people. An easy way to begin is to ask her to describe the person's appearance. From there, the narrator is more likely to move into character description.

11. Interviewing is one time when a negative approach is more effective than a positive one. Ask about the negative aspects of a situation. For example, in asking about a person, do not begin with a glowing description. "I know the mayor was a very generous and wise person. Did you find him so?" Few narrators will quarrel with a statement like that even though they may have found the mayor a disagreeable person. You will get a more lively answer if you start out in the negative. "Despite the mayor's reputation for good works, I hear he was a very difficult man for his immediate employees to get along with." If your narrator admired the mayor greatly, she will spring to his defense with an apt illustration of why your statement is wrong. If she did find him hard to get along with, your remark has given her a chance to illustrate some of the mayor's more unpleasant characteristics.

12. Try to establish at every important point in the story where the narrator was or what her role was in this event, in order to indicate how much is eye-witness information and how much based on reports of others. "Where were you at the time of the mine disaster?" "Did you talk to any of the survivors later?" Work around these questions carefully, so that you will not appear to be doubting the accuracy of the narrator's account.

13. Do not challenge accounts you think might be inaccurate. Instead, try to develop as much information as possible that can be used by later researchers in establishing what probably happened. Your narrator may be telling you quite accurately what she saw. As Walter Lord explained when describing his interviews with survivors of the Titanic, "Every lady I interviewed had left the sinking ship in the last lifeboat. As I later found out from studying the placement of the lifeboats, no group of lifeboats was in view of another and each lady probably was in the last lifeboat she could see leaving the ship."

14. Tactfully point out to your narrator that there is a different account of what she is describing, if there is. Start out by saying, "I have heard ..." or "I have read ..." This is not to challenge her account, but rather an opportunity for her to bring up further evidence to refute the opposing view, or to explain how that view got established, or to temper what she has already said. If done skillfully, some of your best information can come from this juxtaposition of differing accounts.

15. Try to avoid "off the record" information — the times when your narrator asks you to turn off the recorder while she tells you a good story. Ask her to let you record the whole things and promise that you will erase that portion if she asks you to after further consideration. You may have to erase it later, or she may not tell you the story at all, but once you allow "off the record" stories, she may continue with more and more, and you will end up with almost no recorded interview at all. "Off the record" information is only useful if you yourself are researching a subject and this is the only way you can get the information. It has no value if your purpose is to collect information for later use by other researchers.

16. Don't switch the recorder off and on. It is much better to waste a little tape on irrelevant material than to call attention to the tape recorder by a constant on-off operation. For this reason, I do not recommend the stop-start switches available on some mikes. If your mike has such a switch, tape it to the "on" position — then forget it. Of course you can turn off the recorder if the telephone rings or if someone interrupts your session.

17. Interviews usually work out better if there is no one present except the narrator and the interviewer. Sometimes two or more narrators can be successfully recorded, but usually each one of them would have been better alone.

18. End the interview at a reasonable time. An hour and a half is probably the maximum. First, you must protect your narrator against overfatigue; second, you will be tired even if she isn't. Some narrators tell you very frankly if they are tired, or their spouses will. Otherwise, you must plead fatigue, another appointment, or no more tape.

19. Don't use the interview to show off your knowledge, vocabulary, charm, or other abilities. Good interviewers do not shine; only their interviews do.

These tips are take from Willa Baum's Oral History for the Local Historical Society (1971).

Remote interviewing

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, OHC oral historians have developed new practices and procedures to enable remote interviewing and to consider the implications of this practice. In the documents below, we provide our latest guidelines on topics including: remote interviewing with Zoom, tips for getting started in oral history while sheltering in place, and more to come. We welcome feedback, questions, and suggestions for additional topics to cover.

Remote interviewing with Zoom

Man with recorder
These protocols were developed to facilitate remote recording of narrators of the highest quality available during the COVID-19 pandemic. We developed these protocols for the Zoom video conference platform using both audio and video. We also provide instructions for additional, backup audio recordings. Interviewers, or the hosts of the interviews, will need to have a professional Zoom license; narrators need only access to a computer or telephone. 

Available for download: Remote Interviewing with Zoom

Recording with Zoom

Learn how to conduct and record interviews on Zoom with this webinar developed by Paul Burnett and taught by experts in oral history, who interviewed remotely during shelter-in-place.

Watch the webinar

Articles about remote interviewing

Storytelling at a distance: staying connected while we are apart

Oral History provides a way for people to see the world through someone else’s eyes. In this article posted toward the beginning of shelter-in-place in April 2020, Amanda Tewes shares storytelling questions anyone can use to frame oral history life interviews and to have more meaningful conversations — even at a distance. 

The importance of rapport

In this article from March 2021, Shanna Farrell talks about the genuine human connection forged between an interviewer and a narrator, the challenges of establishing rapport remotely, and how it can be done. 

Looking to the future of oral history work

Remote interviewing has enabled opportunities that didn’t exist before. Amanda Tewes sorts out the pros and cons of remote interviewing in this article from May 2021.

Get experience

Internships

University students

The Oral History Center periodically hosts students from UC Berkeley and other universities to serve as interns. Although OHC cannot provide funding to interns, we do offer hands-on training and in-depth engagement with oral history theory, method, and practice. Please contact our interim director, Paul Burnett, if you are a highly-motivated undergraduate or graduate student and want to learn more.

Community volunteers 

The Oral History Center is pleased to work with volunteers who are interested in learning more about oral history and who are willing to make a six-month commitment to contributing to the center’s activities. Contact our interim director, Paul Burnett, to learn more.

Historian Paul Burnett
Historian Paul Burnett filming an interview.

Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship

Historians at the Oral History Center sometimes participate in Berkeley’s Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP). In this program, UC Berkeley students receive course credit and research training in exchange for working as part of a research project team.

Please contact our interim director, Paul Burnett, if you are a highly-motivated Berkeley undergraduate student and want to learn more.

Prizes

The Carmel and Howard Friesen Prize in Oral History Research

The Carmel and Howard Friesen Prize in Oral History Research recognizes scholarly achievement in using primary source material. The $500 prize will be awarded to a UC Berkeley undergraduate who submits the best essay in any discipline that draws upon Oral History Center interviews. 

About Carmel and Howard Friesen

The prize is named for Carmel and Howard Friesen, Cal alums who shared a love of the campus (where they met), The Bancroft Library, and undergraduate education. In 2015, the Friesens granted the Oral History Center a generous endowment that supports this prize, with the goal of encouraging and recognizing undergraduate student achievement in research. The endowment also supports oral history interviews, and Howard Friesen is a narrator of his own oral history, Howard R. Friesen: Engineer, Entrepreneur, and Philanthropist of UC Berkeley. Carmel (Candy) and Howard were married for 64 years until Carmel passed away in 2015.

About Oral History Center interview topics


The Oral History Center has interviews on almost every topic imaginable — with a focus on the United States and a smattering of international interviews. A project like Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream, for example, addresses issues including California’s coastal climate, food and wine agribusinesses, and the growth of multinational corporations. Interviews are easily accessible online.

Thematic areas include arts and literature; the environment, science, engineering, and medicine; social movements; community history; business and labor; politics and government; law and jurisprudence; food, wine, and agriculture; and the history of the University of California.

Major projects featuring multiple interviews include: the Berkeley Free Speech Movement; the marriage equality movement; Rosie the Riveter / World War II Home Front; venture capital; Kaiser Permanente and health care; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; mining and the environment; the law clerks of Chief Justice Earl Warren; the Sierra Club; the disability rights and independent living movement; Napa Valley; and Japanese American Confinement Sites, to name just a handful. 

Searching the collections

Use the search feature on the OHC overview page to search by title, topic, or keyword. Or you can browse our projects. After you’ve conducted your own search, you can contact Interim Director Paul Burnett if you have an idea for a paper and would like some assistance culling through our collections. 

Eligibility and selection criteria

Eligibility
  • You must be a UC Berkeley undergraduate. 
  • The paper must be written for a credit course at UC Berkeley. 
  • Papers should have been written during the current academic year, the previous summer, or the previous spring. For example, for the spring 2021 prize, students can submit papers from a class taken in spring 2021, fall 2020, summer 2020, or spring 2020.
  • The essay should be no longer than 15,000 words and should contain appropriate citations. There is no minimum length.

Due date and submission requirements

Deadline for the 2022 prize is Friday, May 13, at 11:59 p.m. The prize recipient will be notified over the summer. 

Submissions should be delivered via email to OHC Interim Director Paul Burnett. You may submit a paper at any time throughout the year. The prize recipient will be invited to our annual “commencement” event, where we honor all the narrators who gave oral histories over the previous year. This event may not take place in 2021.

Selection criteria

The selection committee will evaluate the submission based on these three criteria:

  • How well oral histories are integrated within and essential to the overall essay
  • How creatively oral histories are used in the essay
  • The overall quality and persuasiveness of the essay

Financial aid regulations

Please note: Federal financial aid regulations require that all awards received by a student not exceed their financial aid need as determined by a Congressional formula. It is possible, therefore, that the cash award for a prize could reduce some component of a student's package of financial aid awards. In these cases, the Financial Aid Office attempts first to reduce loan or work aid; fellowships, grants or scholarships are only reduced as a last resort. 

Questions 

Questions may be directed to OHC Interim Director Paul Burnett.