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October 29th, 2020 Consider Oral History

A group of two white people and one Black person sit laughing around a table. There is a plant and a phone on the table.

When it comes to making our own records of history, I want to reach out to potential future ace historians with a proposition: Consider doing oral history.

When it comes to the tools in the historian’s toolbox, oral history is one that has long been valuable for its ability to uplift the experiences and stories of marginalized groups whose stories are often overlooked by more “official” narratives and documents. Oral history has been essential in uplifting the stories of groups like LGBT people, indigenous people, freed slaves, holocaust survivors, and more.

In addition, oral history presents a uniquely personal look into history by sharing individual’s stories of their own lives, in their own words, allowing later listeners to more intimately connect with their historical predecessors. Oral histories can also provide essential insight into the day to day culture and experiences of everyday people who are often overlooked in higher-level “famous people and major events” style histories.

What is Oral History?

Oral history is defined by the UCSC Oral History Center as such:

Oral history is a method of conducting historical research through recorded interviews between a narrator with personal experience of historically significant events and a well-informed interviewer, with the goal of adding to the historical record. Because it is a primary source, an oral history is not intended to present a final, verified, or "objective" narrative of events, or a comprehensive history of a place….It is a spoken account, reflects personal opinion offered by the narrator, and as such it is subjective. Oral histories may be used together with other primary sources as well as secondary sources to gain understanding and insight into history.

Generally speaking, oral history is a combination of three things: recording, archiving, and analysis. Opportunities to get involved with oral history can occur at any of these stages:

Recording Oral History

Oral history traditionally preserves personal stories and memories via structured, recorded interviews. When conducting such interviews, it’s important to also set clear expectations for how public or private final recordings will be, and to obtain written consent for interviews to be recorded and made public (if relevant).

Conducting such interviews requires both knowledge parties to conduct such interviews, and also interested subjects who are willing to be interviewed. There’s also room for support from tech-savvy individuals who can identify appropriate recording equipment or software to help both interviewers and interviewees to set up a good technical implementation for recordings.

Archiving Oral History

Once interviews have been recorded, the next step is archiving those recordings - both preserving the files to prevent them from being lost and deleted, but also organizing them and perhaps making them available so that they can be listened to and used by others.

On the back end, this can mean ensuring that files are backed up in multiple places, and perhaps the creation of transcripts and indexes to help future researchers find specific sections of interest with regard to specific topics.

One the front end, this can mean creating public facing web portals with information about each oral history project, details of what materials are available, and instructions on how researchers can access said recordings.

Analyzing Oral History

The final step, once oral history archives are available, is to combine them with other primary sources (such as written sources) as part of secondary historical analysis to create a more comprehensive historical narrative - whether by formal academic historians or more amateur community history-keepers. 

This can occur either as part of the initial scope of an oral history project (often by the same historians conducting the interviews, or long afterwards (especially in the case of public or semi-public archives that make their resources available to future researchers).

Oral History vs. Text-Based History, and Why We Need Both

Many of the existing attempts at ace history to this date have often focused on text-based historical investigations - that is, understanding history by examining written records like zines, blog archives, old forum threads, emails, etc. Asexuality is in fact particularly well suited for this type of historical investigation, due to the fact that so much early community formation occurred online and in public forums.

Unfortunately, however, while there is a wealth of historical information available online, there is also much that simply cannot be gleaned from the written word alone.

For every public written resource we have, there are also other pivotal moments where written records do not exist - in-person conversations that were never recorded in first place, private emails and messages that aren’t available to the public, old forum posts and emails that were lost forever due to server crashes or old sites being taken down.

Oral history is a chance to fill in these gaps. 

In addition, oral history adds an important personal element to our stories of history, and can provide insight to not only what people said and did at a given moment, but also why they did so and how they felt about it at the time. 

A great example of this union in contemporary ace history was the recent Haven for the Human Amoeba Anniversary event, which combined textual evidence from the early 2000s HHA archives with a live panel interview of several members of the HHA who spoke about their own experiences with and feelings about that community.

All in all, oral history and text-based history work best when they can complement each other - oral history can fill in gaps in the written record, and add missing perspectives; text-based history can verify and provide context for statements from oral history.

Ideas for Getting Started

If you agree that oral history is important - and I hope that many of you do! The next hurdle is figuring out how to get started. To that end, I’ve included a few links to relevant resources below, as well as a few things to think about when getting started.

If you decide to pursue an oral history project of your own (or if you are interested in helping and want to see if there are existing projects to support), I’d also love to hear about it at sennkestra@gmail.com and provide any networking and support that I can. 

Seek Mentorship, Advice and Support

When starting on a new project, it helps to first learn as much as you can about best practices and suggested methods so that you aren’t having to reinvent the wheel from scratch. Some ways to get that grounding can include:

  • Check out the online guides to doing oral history in the resource links below

  • Reach out to other ace history enthusiasts to see if anyone with similar interests would be willing to work together with you.

  • Ask a local city or school/university librarian to help you find existing oral history databases that you can skim to get an idea of different structures and formats that you might like to use.

  • Reach out to existing local LGBTQ oral history projects to see if they would be interested in adding asexual narratives to their scope (especially if you can volunteer to conduct the interviews!)

  • Reach out to any other local oral history projects and see if they have anyone who would be willing to chat with you and give advice on how to start a project  - maybe see if you can buy them dinner or lunch while you chat as a thank you.

Find a Niche

While “all of ace history” may be something a lot of us would love to see, a project with a scope that’s too broad is also more likely to lead to burnout. Instead, consider finding a specific niche interest for your project that will allow you to start small and keep things manageable. (After all, you can always expand your scope later). Some possible approaches for this could include:

  • A single person’s asexual life story 

  • A single event (like a pride parade or ace conference) and interviewing attendees and planners about their involvement with that specific event

  • Participants from a specific regional area (like a city or state/province)

  • Members of a specific group or organization (like a local meetup, specific activist group, a specific social media page, etc.)

  • Participants from a specific demographic (biromantic aces, or aces of color, or aces over 40, or male aces, etc.)

Determine Your Scope

Once you have a topic in mind, you may want to think about what you want your scope to be. Do you want to be ambitious and create a formal, expansive Oral History collection with transcripts that can be used for future academic research? Or do you just want to wet your toes by interviewing an ace friend and posting it as a youtube blog or blog post? Here’s a couple other things to think about:

  • Do you want to do an open ended project with ongoing additions, or do you want to have a firm end date with a limited number of interviews (maybe even just one)

  • Do you want to work with other volunteers on a larger project, or keep it to the size of something you can accomplish on your own?

  • Do you want to make a formal resource that can be used by future academics, or a more casual resource for fellow friends or community members?

Prep Your Materials

For more detailed guides to how to get started with oral history, I suggest reading the much more in-depth guides from actual oral history experts in the resources section below. However, in the meantime, here’s a few key planning items to begin thinking about

  • Find a release form template that you can adapt to your needs to make sure that you can get a record of what level of publicity your interviewees do or do not consent to

  • Do some initial background research to get familiar with the topic enough to ask insightful questions. Is there anyone else working on history of this topic whose writing you can check out, or collaborate with?

  • Prepare a set of initial questions that you want to focus on 

  • Prepare a shortlist of potential interview candidates you might want to speak to

  • Think about what equipment or software you might need. Are you interviewing in person, or online? Do you want just audio, or video? Can you record with more than one device as a failsafe? Do a few test interviews with a friend to make sure your technical setup works well. 

Resources and Further Reading

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