INFO 284-13
Seminar in Archives and Records Management - Oral History
Spring 2019 Syllabus

Dr. B. Alexander
Other contact information:
Office location: NA
Office Hours: By appointment

Syllabus Links
Canvas Login and Tutorials
iSchool eBookstore

Canvas Information: Courses will be available beginning January 24th at 6 am PT unless you are taking an intensive or a one-unit or two-unit class that starts on a different day. In that case, the class will open on the first day that the class meets.

This course runs from February 1st - March 29th. It will be available on Canvas on February 1st.

You will be enrolled in the Canvas site automatically.


Our class combines historical and practical threads.  We will not, however, view these points of entry as oppositional.  We will come understand that they need be reconciled.  

Towards this end, we need to begin to consider some fundamentals.  What is oral history? Depending on time and place (geography and time-period) I think it well to consider that 99% of history is/was oral.  To tease this thinking further, might it be contradictory to assume that that the study “oral history” begins with technologies of capture be they stylus, reed, pen, magnetic capture or digital code?  Such questions need to serve as precedent as we advance our discussion through the history of the field.

From a historiography perspective, and with the above questions in view, we need to address the charged question of where the evidences of oral history fit into to ever-changing (and hotly debated) hierarchies of historical documentation. For example, do Richard Nixon’s recordings of Oval Office discussion carry more historical weight than say the WPA project that documented the experiences former slaves? Or, when oral history contradicts existing documentation (photographs, manuscript, printed materials etc.) what documentation assumes historical precedent.  Do oral history testimony accrue accuracy over time or does accuracy diminish with the passage of days or years?   

As context for our historical discussion, we will read On a Burning Deck, Return to Akron: An Oral History of The Great Migration as well as selections from An Oral History Reader.  These readings will provide context for not only our understanding of what oral history is, but, also, introduce important questions of preservation and access.

Our study then turns to professional practice.  We will review a range of strategies for conducting oral history interviews? Consider best practices for preservation and access?  Key here are questions of transcription.  What is a transcript?  Is it inherently corruptive?  Who has suitable authority to engage in transcription etc?  This portion of the course relies on our reading of Doing Oral History.

Final assignment is student design of a prospective oral history project that must include: 

  • Scope of a prospective project?  
  • Best practices and strategies for conducting interviews
  • Preservation strategies
  • Access plan
  • And integration into digital platform   


1)  Weekly written assignment.  Each week students will submit a written review (one or two pages) of an article, oral history project, or current event that is based on the practice of oral history.  It is expected that these assignments will be cogently written and will be circulated among class members.  The idea is that by the end of class each student has collected the foundation of a working professional library.

2) Final Project Proposal.  Students will introduce a prospective oral history project.  This project will be informed by relevant professional practice, demonstrate an understanding of the history of the field and reference current professional and academic literature. The proposal will list a calendar documenting the process and successful completion of the project as well as an itemized list (including expenses etc.) of all necessary equipment.  Students will also submit a plan for a professional preservation and access of their project.

Course Calendar

Week 1


  • On a Burning Deck
  • From Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor
Assignment for Essay 1:
Consider carefully the excerpt from London Labour and the London Poor.  What is Henry Mayhew doing?  And, why?  Is this oral history?  Can there be oral history without audio recording? Identify one other example of historical writing that you would offer as comparison to Mayhew.

Week 2


  • On a Burning Deck
Essay 1 Due February 14.
Assignment for Essay 2:
Review the Library of Congress project, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1984.  Listen to at least one recording. What are your impressions of the narrative?  Does the narrative seem contrived? (that is, given that all of these narratives are part of a government-sanctioned project do you have the impression they are contrived?  Could / should these narratives be transcribed?  Consider the breadth of scholarly and educational interests and uses for these recordings. 

Week 3


  • An Oral History Reader
  • For Posterity: The Private Audio Recordings of Louis Armstrong

Essay 2 Due February 21.

Assignment for Essay 3:

Please read, For Posterity: The Private Audio Recordings of Louis Armstrong.  What are these recordings?  Oral history?  Oral tradition?  The article offers one set of considerations that suggest an explanation for Armstrong's recordings, what might be another? Can you think of or identify a comparative body of recordings?  

Week 4

  • An Oral History Reader

Essay 3 Due February 28.

Assignment for Essay 4:

Listen to any one of Edward R. Murrow's recordings from London during the London Blitz.  Again, are these oral history?  Consider their intention at the point of creation.  Is today's news tomorrow's oral history?  Because of the "atmosphere" of these recordings listens were rapt and developed a deep emotional attachment to Murrow's reports.  How might similar "atmosphere" be created for a more contemporary project? 

Week 5


  • Doing Oral History
Essay 4 Due March 7.
Assignment for Essay 5:
Listen to any one of Franklin D. Roosevelt's famous "Fireside Chats."  One of the greatest challenges archivists face is recovering the context of creation of archival materials.  In the case of FDR's Fireside Chats, this is especially important and challenging.  How can we, today, offer sensitive explanation for the true power of FDR's speeches during an era when almost no American's owned (or even knew of) television.  It was a culture based on text and orality. Can this be communicated in any meaningful way?

Week 6


  • Doing Oral History
Essay 5 Due March 14.
Assignment for Essay 6:
Listen to the excerpt from Richard Nixon's "White House" recording in which he discusses homosexuality and All in the Family.  First, why did Nixon go to such lengths to record the inner workings of his administration?  Why have so many presidents created oral records of oval office conversations (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon etc.)?  Can you imagine a project (digital) that would convey the impression and purpose of these recordings as they were originally conceived and produced?    

Week 7

Essay 6 Due March 21.

No essay assigned. Students are working on final projects.

Week 8

Students submit and share final projects 

Course Workload Expectations

Success in this course is based on the expectation that students will spend, for each unit of credit, a minimum of forty-five hours over the length of the course (normally 3 hours per unit per week with 1 of the hours used for lecture) for instruction or preparation/studying or course related activities including but not limited to internships, labs, clinical practica. Other course structures will have equivalent workload expectations as described in the syllabus.

Instructional time may include but is not limited to:
Working on posted modules or lessons prepared by the instructor; discussion forum interactions with the instructor and/or other students; making presentations and getting feedback from the instructor; attending office hours or other synchronous sessions with the instructor.

Student time outside of class:
In any seven-day period, a student is expected to be academically engaged through submitting an academic assignment; taking an exam or an interactive tutorial, or computer-assisted instruction; building websites, blogs, databases, social media presentations; attending a study group;contributing to an academic online discussion; writing papers; reading articles; conducting research; engaging in small group work.

Course Prerequisites

INFO 200, INFO 202, INFO 204, other prerequisites may be added depending on content. 

Course Learning Outcomes

Upon successful completion of the course, students will be able to:

  1. Plan and implement an oral history project.
  2. Apply history research methods to develop context for the topic at hand.
  3. Prepare, conduct, and record an oral history interview.
  4. Identify the legal and ethical issues involved in recording a person's memories and making them available to researchers and the general public.
  5. Implement current oral history processing and preservation practices and techniques.
  6. Evaluate methods of access to completed oral histories.
  7. Understand the uses of oral history as a primary source.

Core Competencies (Program Learning Outcomes)

INFO 284 supports the following core competencies:

  1. - Core Competencies for this course and/or topic are being updated at this time.


Required Textbooks:

  • Jones, T. (Ed.) (2017). On a burning deck: Return to Akron. An oral history of the Great Migration. Vol 2, 1920-1992. Tom Jones. Available through Amazon: 1545565767arrow gif indicating link outside sjsu domain
  • Perks, R. &, Thomson, A. (Eds.) (2016). The oral history reader (3rd ed.). New York: Rutledge. Available through Amazon: 0415707331arrow gif indicating link outside sjsu domain
  • Ritchie, D. A. (2015). Doing oral history (3rd ed.) . New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Available through Amazon: 0199329338arrow gif indicating link outside sjsu domain

Grading Scale

The standard SJSU School of Information Grading Scale is utilized for all iSchool courses:

97 to 100 A
94 to 96 A minus
91 to 93 B plus
88 to 90 B
85 to 87 B minus
82 to 84 C plus
79 to 81 C
76 to 78 C minus
73 to 75 D plus
70 to 72 D
67 to 69 D minus
Below 67 F


In order to provide consistent guidelines for assessment for graduate level work in the School, these terms are applied to letter grades:

  • C represents Adequate work; a grade of "C" counts for credit for the course;
  • B represents Good work; a grade of "B" clearly meets the standards for graduate level work;
    For core courses in the MLIS program (not MARA or Informatics) — INFO 200, INFO 202, INFO 204 — the iSchool requires that students earn a B in the course. If the grade is less than B (B- or lower) after the first attempt you will be placed on administrative probation. You must repeat the class if you wish to stay in the program. If - on the second attempt - you do not pass the class with a grade of B or better (not B- but B) you will be disqualified.
  • A represents Exceptional work; a grade of "A" will be assigned for outstanding work only.

Students are advised that it is their responsibility to maintain a 3.0 Grade Point Average (GPA).

University Policies

Per University Policy S16-9, university-wide policy information relevant to all courses, such as academic integrity, accommodations, etc. will be available on Office of Graduate and Undergraduate Programs' Syllabus Information web page at: Make sure to visit this page, review and be familiar with these university policies and resources.

In order to request an accommodation in a class please contact the Accessible Education Center and register via the MyAEC portal.

icon showing link leads to the PDF file viewer known as Acrobat Reader Download Adobe Acrobat Reader to access PDF files.

More accessibility resources.