5 Questions About: The Oral History Manual, 3rd edition

We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books. In our latest installment of the series, Barbara Sommer discusses The Oral History Manual, 3rd edition, which she co-wrote with Mary Kay Quinlan. 

Read Sarah M. Schmitt’s review of The Oral History Manual, 3rd edition, online and in issue 47.1 of OHR.

What’s it about and why does it matter?

When the first edition of The Oral History Manual came out about 20 years ago, a reviewer wrote that it helped people learn to think like oral historians. For co-authors Barb Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan, this was our goal. We wanted to encourage people to think about the interview, the centerpiece of the work of oral historians, in terms of the methodology that gives it its meaning as an oral history. With each succeeding edition of the book, our updates have included new information to help its readers continue to grow in an understanding of the field. The third edition, which came out in June 2018, builds further on that base with detailed new information that covers advances in oral history methodology and practice.

How does your book address oral history?

The Oral History Manual, 3rd ed., as were the 1st and 2nd editions, is about oral history. The book defines and discusses methodology—the steps to take in recording and preserving in-depth interviews that meet oral history standards. The book describes the practice of oral history, discussing and analyzing each step and explaining its importance to the overall process. In it, we give readers the tools to become confident and knowledgeable oral historians.

What’s new in the third edition?

There are many excellent publications in the oral history field. With each publication, the field expands and grows in exciting ways. But it grows from a common base – an understanding of methodology. Methodology provides the structure on which to build the continued growth and expansion of knowledge that marks the oral history field.

As co-authors, we worked hard in each edition to meet and support the standards of the Oral History Association as defined in its Principles and Best Practices. New information in the third edition includes:

  • information defining and describing how each part of the step-by-step methodology in the book interacts to support and strengthen the interview
  • information about steps in the planning process that can help lead to a substantive interview
  • updated information about legal and ethical issues
  • information to help guide recording equipment choices
  • updated and expanded interviewing guidelines
  • inclusion of the concept of stewardship of oral history interviews, introduced in Barbara W. Sommer, Practicing Oral History in Historical Organizations (2015), a book in the ‘Practicing Oral History’ series, and a discussion about what this means and how to apply it
  • a new chapter titled “Making Meanings from Oral History” that provides a thoughtful discussion about ethical, effective uses of oral history interview information

We included each of these additions to help strengthen and support an understanding of oral history methodology and to support oral history standards.

In its detailed step-by-step guide to methodology, The Oral History Manual, 3rd ed., offers a solid base for oral historians. Its chapters take the reader through the process, introducing oral history concepts while describing and explaining each along the way. Beginning with an introduction to what oral history is, it moves through discussions of planning, interview preparation, interviewing, preservation of and ongoing access to interviews, to uses of oral histories. In doing so, it lays a foundation for the sound practice of oral history.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

Oral historians have used previous editions of The Oral History Manual in many ways. It is often used in post-secondary classrooms to introduce students to oral history methodology and best practices. It is used by public historians in archives and museums to provide a comprehensive guide to oral history practice in these settings. It is used by community oral historians recording the voices in their neighborhoods and institutions. We wrote the 3rd edition of The Oral History Manual with these audiences in mind. As co-authors, our goal is to provide solid, thorough information about oral history methodology. In the 3rd edition, we’ve updated and expanded on information that readers have found helpful in past editions while continuing to help people learn to think like oral historians. 

What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?

The Oral History Manual in its three editions has been a part of the body of work in the oral history field for several decades. We look forward to its continued use in defining a strong methodological base and standard of practice for oral historians.

We always have had many people to thank for their support of this publication, but there are two we’d like to single out at this time. Thanks to former Executive Director Jane Renner Hood and the Nebraska Humanities Council for the grant that supported the work of Barb and Mary Kay which became the basis for the first edition of The Oral History Manual. And thanks to Mitch Allen, founder/publisher of AltaMira Press, now a division of Rowman & Littlefield, the official press of the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), who, when he approached Barb at an AASLH conference with a request for a new oral history publication and the promise of a contract to publish it, provided us the opportunity to write and publish The Oral History Manual, now in its third edition.