National Wildlife Refuge System

Speak Up Please! Oral History in the Local Community

By Ben Hurwitz

This gathering at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, VA, was a perfect opportunity for a group oral history project.
Credit: Mark Madison/USFWS
If only we really could talk to a long-lived Laysan albatross!
Credit: USFWS

Oral history interviews can be conducted with just about anybody, by just about anybody, and they can address a number of topics including personal, family, local or world history. Oral histories represent the perspectives of everyday people who are often ignored by other types of historical records.

Nobody knows the local area better than lifelong residents who have witnessed change over time. Community members can serve as witnesses to how an area has been affected by the presence of a national wildlife refuge, and they may offer insight into the cultural resources located within the refuge. They may also have experience as a visitor, fisherman, hunter, boater, or concessionaire that could add to the story of the Refuge System.

Oral history tells us about much more than the land itself; it is a great way to assess how different people engage with Refuge System. For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Oral History project documents the story of Service personnel who helped to make the Refuge System what it is today. These stories are now available through the Service’s National Digital Library.

It is important to begin your own oral history project with a topic in mind – perhaps you would like to know about the effect of a dam’s construction, the automation of a lighthouse, or hunting in a wilderness area. Once you know what you want to learn, it will be easier to contact prospective interviewees.  When approaching people, make it immediately clear why you are interested in interviewing them, how you will use the interview material, and what they should expect during the interview (length of time, setting, etc.).

  • Choose an appropriate location to conduct your oral history interview. Meeting in a loud or crowded area will reduce the quality of the recording and will make it more difficult for you and your interviewee to remain focused. Select a location in which you and your interviewee feel comfortable and relaxed.
  • You don’t need an expensive microphone or any other specialized equipment to conduct an oral history interview. If you have an iPhone, you can download a free app, created by StoryCorps, to help you record. There are also recording apps available for Android devices. Look here for a description of several Android recording devices. Using a small, portable digital voice recorder is also a good option. The price of digital voice recorders varies greatly, but an adequate recorder can be very affordable.
  • If you do choose to conduct an oral history interview, take several steps to make sure that it is preserved and appreciated. First, type a transcript of your interview so that its contents can be easily stored and shared. Second, think about groups that may be interested in publicly sharing either your interview recording or transcript. If you would like to submit your interview to the National Digital Library, just follow the release form and submission procedures described here. You should also consider submitting your material to your local newspaper or historical society.

Show appreciation to your local community by soliciting historical interviews. These interactions expose community members to the work of the refuge and encourage them to assist with future refuge initiatives. If you would like more tips on how to structure your interview, please check out these useful links:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Oral History Handbook

Oral History Primer, University of California Santa Cruz

Step-by Step Guide to Oral History, Judith Moyer

Oral History Interviews, The American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

Oral History Association


Ben Hurwitz was a summer intern for the National Wildlife Refuge System Cultural Resource Program.




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Last updated: September 13, 2013