Oral histories are invaluable primary sources, because they capture the personality and perspective of an individual's story in a way that physical documents cannot. Although a diary or manuscript may contain much of the same information or content, listening to an individual tell their memories and experience connects listeners to the raw emotion and humanity of their story. Tone of voice or pauses can give unique insight into the individual's feelings, emotions, confidence, and convictions.
In the three partial transcripts below, interviewees relate their personal experience living and working in the Kentucky coal fields. Topics discussed include work conditions and worker safety, mine operator oversight, segregation and integration within coal camps, and picket line experiences. As you read and listen to each person’s experience and consider the perspectives represented, think about what unique knowledge we gain from first person accounts through oral histories.
The Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History provides access to a wealth of interviews focused on many topics in Kentucky history. There are multiple projects concerning Kentucky coal, but three interviews from two projects are used in this module. To the right you will find links to three separate oral history interviews as well as selected transcript excerpts below; two with coal miners, one with the widow of a coal miner. In addition to discussing the interview excerpts below, students are encouraged to visit the corresponding links to listen to the selected excerpts and/or more.
Brainstorm. List 10-20 words or phrases about the documents/items. (Start with the details of the documents, like topic, names, publication, etc. What do you find interesting? Strange? Do you find anything appealing or disturbing? Things you don’t understand or are unfamiliar with?)
Articulating Problems. Formulate 2-4 possible problems that could be developed from the above list of words and description of materials. (Problems can be found by looking for tensions between ideas, conflicts between your own experience and what the text/image presents, assumptions underlying the arguments of the text/item, or if you notice any gaps or missing information overlooked by the source).
Posing Fruitful Questions. List 2-4 open-ended questions for one problem that could lead to more in-depth research.
What is at Stake? Thinking about the description, brainstorming list, problems, and questions, write 2-5 sentences answering the following: So what? Why does this matter? Why would someone care about this topic and why?
Bias: Identify some biases in play. What do we know or what can we infer about the speakers? Whose perspective is represented?
Context: Think about the when and why of this primary source. What gives their stories authority? What should we be wary of? What makes this a valuable resource to the topic?
Power: What power relationships can you identify in the materials? Try to think in terms of format in addition to content.
Reflections: What can we learn from these materials? How is our understanding of the topic enhanced through these first-hand recollections?
(Links to external site)
Note about oral histories: The excerpts contained in this module represent barely a fraction of the stories of coal communities contained in these and other projects. Students are encouraged to visit https://kentuckyoralhistory.org/ to learn more.