Living the Story: The Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky
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These tips on using oral history to learn about civil rights in Kentucky were compiled by the staff of the Kentucky Civil Rights Project, Kentucky Oral History Commission, Kentucky Historical Society. For more information, contact the Kentucky Oral History Commission at (502) 564-1792.

The mission of the Kentucky Oral History Commission is to preserve the rich histories of Kentucky citizens from all walks of life. These projects explore and describe local individuals and their communities and provide students and researchers the rare opportunity to become involved with their subject matter in an interactive process of learning.

If you are interested in learning how to conduct oral history interviews, be sure to read the tips for successful interviewing below. If you want to conduct interviews on the civil rights movement in particular, we have also provided some sample questions to get you started.

Tips for Successful Interviewing

First, recruit appropriate people to talk to. Choose people based on their experiences and knowledge of the subject matter. For the civil rights movement, choose people who are over age 50—preferably 60 to 70 years old or older. Select people who like to talk; quiet people are generally harder to interview.

Once you have agreed on a time for the interview, find a quiet place to conduct it. Turn off radios and televisions, and close the door if appropriate.

Before you begin, make sure your recording equipment is working properly. Use of an external microphone is recommended. If you use a tape recorder, try to use cassette tapes that allow 30 minutes of recording on each side. Longer tapes break more easily and do not preserve well.

As the conversation proceeds, keep these tips in mind:

  • Be respectful.
  • Listen carefully, and do not interrupt. Take notes to help you keep track of follow-up questions. Do not share stories about yourself or your reactions to the subject’s stories until after the formal interview is over.
  • Nod your head and use eye contact as much as possible to show you are paying attention. (This may be harder to do if you are taking notes.)

When you are finished with the interview, have the individual sign a consent form agreeing to the interview. A sample consent form is available from the Kentucky Oral History Commission; call (502) 564-1792.

Select an archive and donate the finished interview. Not only will tapes last longer if placed in an archive, but they also will be available to future researchers. Consider university archives in your area first. The Kentucky Oral History Commission, 100 West Broadway, Frankfort, KY 40601, also accepts taped interviews for the archives.

If possible, make a duplicate of the interview tape and give it to the interviewee. Such a gift will be greatly appreciated by both the interview subject and his or her family.

If you’re ready to get started interviewing people about the civil rights movement now, here are some sample questions.

Additional Resources

Teachers developing classroom oral history projects will find the following two books helpful:

  • Wood, Linda P. Oral History Projects in the Classroom. 2001. Paper, 3-hole printed notebook format. 87 pages, with introduction by Marjorie L. McLellan and bibliography. Available for purchase from the Oral History Association, Dickinson College, P.O. Box 1773, Carisle, PA 17013, (717) 245-1036.
  • Ritchie, Donald A. Doing Oral History. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.

For more information on legal issues, contact the Oral History Association at the address above and request a copy of the pamphlet Oral History and the Law.

Living the Story > Oral History How-To