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Record an Oral History to Preserve Every Detail & Emotion for a Lifetime

 

As teenagers everywhere begin their prom preparations, they are creating memories. While photographs capture snippets of these memories, an oral history project will ensure that every detail, feeling and emotion of prom lives on forever.

An oral history is a story told by the person who has lived it and recorded for preservation. This creates a “snapshot of the times” that is “valuable from a historical point of view,” said David Stricklin, head of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.

“Oral history is a great tool for collecting social history,” including aspects of everyday life, such as clothing, food and events, he said.

Studying events like prom is important in social history because it identifies cultural trends and paradigm shifts, Stricklin said. For example, when he attended prom in the early 1970s, the societal norm was to attend with a date of the opposite sex. He said the goal at the time was for everyone to look the same and “conform.” A lot had changed by the early 2000s, when his daughter went to prom with a group of friends, some even wearing fairy wings, he said.

“If social historians had started prom oral history projects in the 1950s, there would be a gigantic database tracking evidence of growing freedoms in social events in this country,” he said.

Oral history projects preserve all prom memories, even the smaller details and emotions that may get a little fuzzy over time. While most prom-goers will never forget their dress or date, memories of the excitement of getting ready for prom or the energy of dancing with friends may not be as sharp.

What You Need

All that is needed to create an oral history project is a recording device and an interviewer. Most smartphones have built-in voice recorders, and several voice recording apps, like the free StoryCorps app, are also available. The Butler Center also rents recording booths for free. Individuals who record their stories at the center receive a CD of the recording but must consent to leaving a copy in the archives for historical preservation, Stricklin said.

Interviewers should encourage the subject to talk as if they were strangers, he said. Interviewees should be honest and include as many details – good or bad, big or small – as possible, and think about what people in the future might want to know, he said.

The person conducting the interview should be someone the teenager can easily talk to, he said. If a parent is doing the interview, Stricklin suggests encouraging communication and not “shutting them down” while they are talking. The goal, he said, is to “get someone to say what they want to say.”

Stricklin said interviewers should discuss aspects of prom that would particularly interest social historians, such as:

  1. Preparations
    Discuss where the prom was held, who decorated, who chaperoned and other aspects of prom planning.
  2. Mechanics
    Discuss transportation, decorations, conventions, music and trends.
  3. Clothing
    Discuss details about the dress, tuxedo, hair, accessories, makeup and more, as well as what it was like to shop and where items were purchased.
  4. Previous Knowledge
    Discuss previous prom stories that the subject has heard from family or friends.
  5. Emotions
    Describe the feelings at every moment of prom – getting ready, being at the prom and returning home.

Get Motivated

Nationally, there has been a push to preserve any aspect of social history through StoryCorps, a nonprofit dedicated to providing all Americans the opportunity to record, share and preserve their stories, Stricklin said.

To get teens excited about participating, Stricklin suggests parents simply say, “just humor me,” and explain how they wish they had recordings of a grandparent or other relative from the past.

“You’re fighting against young people who don’t think their lives are part of history,” he said. “I want kids to know their lives are something bigger. They may not think it’s important, but future historians will.

“I don’t know anyone who’s ever been sorry they did something like this.”

Stricklin said to his knowledge no one has done a prom oral history at the Butler Center, but “we would love to have them in the archive. Prom is part of the history of everyday life. It matters to people.”

For tips on creating an oral history project, visit the StoryCorps website at www.storycorps.org or the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies website at www.butlercenter.org. To reserve a recording booth, call (501) 320-5700. 

Erica Sweeney is thrilled to be editor of Savvy Kids. She has been a regular contributor to the magazine and loves sharing information with the families of central Arkansas.
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