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September/October 2017

Oral History for VVA Chapters

Building a LegacyOral history is an effective technique for preserving the history of veterans’ activism in local communities. It is easy to do, fun, and vital if we are to preserve the history of Vietnam veterans. This documentary technique involves conducting in-depth interviews with individuals who have personal memories of historical changes and events.

This guide is intended to be a brief introduction to the process.

The first step is to determine who you want to interview and for what purpose. These interviews should be conducted so that they can be kept permanently and made available for use by students and scholars in future generations. That means taking steps to ensure that the interviews are recorded so that they can be used by technologies that may come later. And it means making sure that appropriate documentation is created at the same time.

What Do I Need?

At the most basic level, all you need is some form of recording device. Not all recorders are equal, however. Almost everyone carries a smart phone with recording capability built into it. The problem is that telephone microphones are designed to be used very close to the mouth. While they generally are quite good, they are not intended to be placed on a table and used for interviews.

We recommend that chapters purchase dedicated digital voice recorders capable of recording in .wav format. Olympus, Tascam, and other brands make excellent devices for this purpose. The .wav file format is best because it is a “lossless” format. That is, it comes close to sounding like the original audio source. It can be used by different types of computers and devices, and it is not platform dependent. Interviewers should look closely at the user manual and set the file format accordingly.

While audiocassette recorders are still available and blank cassettes can still be found, playback devices for this technology are increasingly difficult to find. For that reason it is our recommendation that audiocassette recorders be avoided.

Video is an excellent choice if a chapter has the technological expertise to support it, although the expenses associated with recording and storing video are important considerations.


Conducting an oral history in an ethical and legally appropriate way requires two separate documents. The first is called an “informed consent.” Basically, an informed consent includes who is conducting the interview, for what purpose, and what will happen to the recording. Lots of models of informed consents are available on the web. A good informed consent form is located at www.vvaveteran.org You can modify it as appropriate for your chapter.

The second kind of document is a “copyright transfer agreement.” According to U.S. law, whenever a recording is made, a form of property is created. This property—the intellectual property in the recording—is jointly owned by both the interviewer and the interviewee. In order for any use to be made of the recording, both parties need to agree.

For this reason, we strongly urge that chapters prepare copyright transfer agreements that place the interviews in the public domain. When signed by both parties, this means that no one owns the intellectual property in the interview. It could therefore be used by anyone, at any time, for any purpose.

Although this can be an unsettling prospect, there are advantages. An interviewee is contributing to the general public good and documenting the history of veterans’ activism. That’s no small thing. Interviewees are talking themselves into the history books, literally.

Furthermore, placing an interview in the public domain is not the same thing as giving away the rights to your story. Interviewees can still pen the Great American Novel or prepare the next blockbuster movie script. They are only donating to the public domain the words spoken on the recording and in that specific order. The interviewee keeps the right to tell his or her story in any other way and in any other format.

Finally, we have to recognize that the generation of Vietnam veterans is getting older. Unless some appropriate legal disposition is made of the recordings, upon the death of the interviewer or the interviewee the recording becomes effectively valueless to later users. Getting signed public domain copyright transfer agreements lessens the likelihood of that happening.

Placing interviews in the public domain is not required. There are other options. One is to use a Creative Commons license. (See more at https://creativecommons.org) Some oral historians also require that the interviewee transfer intellectual property rights to the interviewer.

Whichever way your chapter elects to go, a copyright transfer agreement of some kind is necessary. Again, you can find an example here.

The Interview

In oral history interviews you want to get interviewees to tell their stories as best they can. In my experience, it’s useful to have an interviewer who knows at least the outlines of the story he or she is trying to collect. However, oral history is not adversarial journalism. Yes, it’s unquestionably true that errors of fact and interpretation may come to light. When that happens, it is appropriate to challenge an interviewee to remember accurately. But it’s not necessary to interrupt or to get into arguments. The goal of the interview is to record the past as it is recalled and told by the interviewee. The best advice I can give on interviewing technique is to do your very best to give permission to the interviewee to speak as candidly as possible.

Chapters should consider designating a single person as an oral history archivist. That person can be responsible for collecting the recordings, the signed informed consent forms, and the deed of gift agreements.

Once completed, interviews should be transferred from the digital voice recorder to a hard drive and then duplicated for off-site storage. Interview paperwork should be scanned or photographed and then also duplicated for off-site storage. Everything should be kept in a single computer file folder, organized by the name of the interviewee.

Arrangements also should be made with a local college or library for permanent preservation.

Many librarians and archivists are delighted to receive a completed, well-documented collection of oral histories from VVA chapters. Very often they will work with chapter members to ensure the production of high-quality recordings and accurate documentation.

Philip F. Napoli is an associate professor of history at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and the author of Bringing It All Back Home: An Oral History of New York City’s Vietnam Veterans (Hill and Wang, 2013).




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