Archives beyond the boxes: Students’ oral histories about lived experiences at the outbreak of COVID-19

Are you looking for an engaging assignment idea? In today’s post, Gordie Burr, an instructor in McGill University’s School of Information Studies, shares an oral history assignment he developed last year. This assignment helped the 29 students in his class develop a sense of agency while they honed their interviewing skills and developed a greater awareness about inclusivity in archival settings. Oral history assignments can be used in various course contexts, both online and in-person.

Could you describe the oral history assignment you developed?

Students interviewed one another about their experiences between March 13, the onset of the lockdown, and the end of April 2020. In groups of 2-3, they took turns being the interviewer and the interviewee for short interviews of about 10 minutes each, which they recorded in Zoom. Then they wrote a report about the experience. Students’ assignment preparation involved developing a protocol of how they were going to do the interviews, including ethical and confidentiality considerations, and preparing the consent form that the interviewee would sign. (View the assignment description)

Why did you develop an oral history assignment? 

I began thinking about my Fall 2020 Archival Description and Access course (GLIS 641), and trying to find projects that could be done remotely because the archives is still overwhelmingly paper-based. Usually I would take my class to Rare Books and Special Collections or the University Archives to look at unprocessed papers and develop a finding aid for them. I couldn’t do that in Fall 2020. I thought it would be really interesting to explore oral histories. That’s kind of innovative in archives, because archives are about having everything be factually accurate. Meanwhile, oral histories (which we did using digital storytelling) are about the personal story, so it doesn’t always have to be 100% accurate, because it’s your experience, your way of looking at the world.

The assignment was partly inspired by digital storytelling work I did through the McGill Bicentennial Committee. There is lots of material in the McGill Archives from professors, from organizations, institutional records. But we don’t have a lot of material from people relating their individual stories, which tend to be fascinating and intriguing. Digital storytelling aims to fill that gap, allowing archivists to be more engaged with different communities, so that more varied voices are included in archives—not just the voices of rich and powerful institutions, or the well-read, or people who can write really well, or the literate. You’re looking for lots of different voices.

How did students prepare to do the project?

Learning from guest speakers, literature and lectures with practical tips

One of my former students helped to run the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (COHDS) digital storytelling project at Concordia. She came and talked to the class about the project, to share their professional on-the-ground expertise.

The students also looked at other sources and developed interview questions. Some of the questions aimed to gather the details you need for an oral history interview because documentation is important – names and so on. But also questions like “What were you doing?”; “How did the start of the pandemic shut-downs impact you – your life as a student, your personal life, your work life?” And then seeing if there’s anything that really struck them in terms of the overall pandemic situation.

Thinking about making a comfortable, safe interview environment

I gave a lecture about how to prepare for the oral history interview. You need a safe environment. I showed students examples from oral history projects of how to help people feel comfortable. We talked about things like ice breaker techniques, and they tried them out in the interviews.

A lot of the literature about doing oral history interviews is centered on people who come from situations of disaster – genocide, or refugee situations, people whose lives are at risk. The pandemic has been akin to that, but not exactly the same. The literature recognizes that people might be stressed when you ask them a question, because it can bring back painful memories. It’s important to let the interviewee have space to tell their story, and not to push them. It’s also a matter of allowing the person to have their own voice, because it’s their story that’s important. That’s the key element. And if the interviewee has difficulty responding to a question, the interviewer can pause, let the interviewee gather their thoughts, and listen actively and supportively. Then the interview can continue or not, depending on the situation.


Students tried out the interview a couple of times, with test runs in Zoom, before doing the final recording. That way they could become more comfortable posing questions and formulating their ideas, and they tended to give more detailed answers.

How did it go?

The students really got into this assignment because it gave them a sense of control and the opportunity to contribute to history, based on their personal story. That was very much a “hook” for students. I know they loved learning about peers’ experiences and their commonalities. Hearing students’ perspective was a great learning experience for me as well. Also, a benefit of this assignment was that students worked in groups and engaged in peer-to-peer learning. There’s nothing better than that – students learning from each other. At the end, students were happy with the whole project, including the product. So was I!

What advice would you have for instructors considering doing an oral history project in their course?

I could see an oral history assignment being used in both graduate and undergraduate courses to facilitate students’ sharing their points of view or voicing concerns.

  • Identify a focal point for the oral history interview and relate it to the course. Students could interview people who participated in a particular institution, or they could interview each other about events that happened in their lives. It can be something as simple as, “How did you come to Montreal?” or “What was your first term at McGill like?”, depending on the context of the course.
  • There’s a fair amount of literature about conducting oral history interviews. It helps to become familiar with it so that you can share practical advice with students, including techniques for doing interviews.
  • Consider how you can support students in promoting safe environments for doing interviews.
  • Foster an environment that respects confidentiality and ethical presentation of materials. Introduce consent forms.

I’d like to encourage other instructors to consider using oral history interviews because it’s really important for students to have a voice, especially in these times.

Reflection question for readers: How might you consider using an oral history assignment in your course?

Image Credits:

Beci Harmony on Unsplash

Gordie Burr by Josée Martel

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