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Unpacking the Oral History Interview

Register today to attend a virtual workshop and learn how to become a “story-taker.”

Saturday, October 10, 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. via Zoom.

Everyone has a story, if only we could hear them. As the Jacksonville Historical Society broadens its capabilities and serves Jacksonville in new ways, we often discover people whose stories deserve to be preserved and shared. One of the best ways to collect those stories is by conducting an oral history interview, which the JHS has been doing for several years.

The growing oral history archive at the JHS includes some of Jacksonville’s most notable citizens, as well as those among its least recognized. The connecting thread of our collection is Jacksonville. Within our collection may be found stories about particular topics in Jacksonville’s history, such as government, civil rights, business, medicine, the law, maritime shipping and veterans’ history (especially the Navy, though not limited to that branch of the military), the arts, culture and music, and education.

Over the last several decades, oral history has become more important in the discipline of history. It has been helped by the availability of affordable recording devices such as cassette tape recorders, and more recently, digital voice recorders. As a result, our understanding of human history has become richer. In the field of military history, for example, that long relied on the papers and memoirs of generals or admirals, we now have access to the lived experiences of soldiers and sailors who served at critical moments, whose perspective often differs from that seen at the top, looking down.

As Jacksonville approaches its bicentennial in 2022, you can help strengthen Jacksonville’s historical understanding by helping the JHS to grow its collection. One way is to suggest individuals whose story you believe would contribute to understanding this sprawling city. Another is to support the JHS financially. In addition, you might choose to learn more yourself about how oral history is done by professionals.

It is true that anyone can conduct an oral history interview, but the most productive and valuable interviews are the result of careful research and preparation, and are organized and performed according to the best practices of the field. As one who has conducted nearly 200 interviews, and who has taught oral history at the college level, I feel confident in offering to help anyone who has an interest in learning how to contribute to the ongoing work of doing good oral history.

The skills associated with oral history have value in fields such as the law, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, journalism, and political science. Your interests may range further than history itself, and that’s fine. As for the JHS itself, we want to broaden our archives, topically, and in every other way. By gaining expertise, you may be able to help us do that in the months and years ahead.

An additional reason for the JHS to build its capacity for doing oral history is that many Jacksonville institutions and organizations are approaching significant anniversaries. As noted, the city itself is nearing its bicentennial, and that is a commemoration for which we are preparing. But so too, many of our businesses, churches, civic clubs and others either have or soon will commemorate anniversaries of 25 or 50 years, or even a century. One of the best and most enduring ways to mark such an event is to capture the stories of those who experienced the years that led up to those big moments. The JHS can help, and we’ll be glad to discuss how.

 Alan Bliss, Ph.D., CEO, Jacksonville Historical Society


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