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Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

The Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History
Interviewing Guide

by Marjorie Hunt
© 2003 Smithsonian Institution

Introduction

Precious Legacies:
Documenting Family Folklore and Community Traditions

We hope that the Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interviewing Guide inspires you to turn to members of your own family and community as key sources of history, culture, and tradition. But where does one start? This booklet presents some guidelines Smithsonian folklorists have developed over the years for collecting folklife and oral history from family and community members. It features a general guide to conducting an interview, as well as a sample list of questions that may be adapted to your own needs and circumstances. The booklet concludes with a few examples of ways to preserve and present your findings, a selection of further readings, a glossary of key terms, and sample information and release forms.

In every community — in families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools — there are people who have knowledge and skills to share — ways of knowing and doing that often come from years of experience and have been preserved and passed down across generations. As active participants in community life, these bearers of tradition are primary sources of culture and history. They are, as folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett writes, "living links in the historical chain, eye witnesses to history, shapers of a vital and indigenous way of life. They are unparalleled in the vividness and authenticity they can bring to the study of local history and culture."

Through documenting their memories and stories, the past comes to life in the present, filled with vivid images of people, places, and events. And it is not only the past that we discover: we learn about the living traditions — the foodways, celebrations, customs, music, occupations, and skills — that are a vital part of daily experience. These stories, memories, and traditions are powerful expressions of community life and values. They anchor us in a larger whole, connecting us to the past, grounding us firmly in the present, giving us a sense of identity and roots, belonging and purpose.

Bearers of Tradition:

A tradition-bearer can be anyone—young or old— who has knowledge, skills, and experience to share: for example, a third-grader who knows the hand-clapping games shared among schoolchildren on the playground; a family member who knows about the special foods that are always prepared for holiday celebrations; or a neighbor who has lived in your community for many years and can tell you about local history and ways of life.

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"Out of shared telling and remembering grow identity, connection, and pride, binding people to a place and to one another."
- Tom Rankin, Folklorist


"Once a young man asked me, 'What was it like in your day?' 'My day?' I said, 'This is my day!'"
- Rosina Tucker, Washington DC


"[Tradition-bearers] are living links in the historical chain, eye witnesses to history, shapers of a vital and indigenous way of life. They are unparalleled in the vividness and authenticity they can bring to the study of local history and culture."
- Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Folklorist