History Design Lab Institute Advises How to Launch an Oral History Project

January 15, 2020
Hillary Hempstead
people in a classroom for the History Design Lab Institute.
Attendees listen to a presentation in the History Design Lab Institute. Photo credit: Yvonne Gay

The two-day project during winter term offers an intensive look at how to launch a collaborative oral history project, along with methods of project design and presentation.

More than 70 people participated in the History Design Lab Institute, including students, faculty, and staff from on-campus winter term group projects, as well as community partners.

Organized by Tamika Nunley, assistant professor of history and comparative American studies, and Tania Boster, assistant professor of history and executive director of integrative and experiential learning, the History Design Lab Institute is an intensive, two-day, winter-term workshop that is an extension of Nunley’s History Design Lab.

Instead of the typical written history paper, projects created through the History Design Lab devise innovative ways to answer questions about history. Those approaches include digital humanities, exhibit design, oral history, podcasts, historical fiction, and public history. The lab also provides a space for those who are working on collaborative history projects to workshop their ideas.

The pair saw the institute as a way to bring together students, faculty and staff, and community members who are working on these collaborative history projects. As such, the History Design Lab Institute served as a launch point for several on-campus winter term projects, including Practicum in Exhibit Design, Podcasting Oberlin News, and Sonic Arts in Society.

“We were delighted by the range of faculty from different departments and staff from different parts of campus who attended and are working on community collaborative projects,” says Boster. 

Participants heard from speakers who presented on a variety of topics, including Liz Strong ‘09, coordinator for the Obama Presidency Oral History Project, who covered core ethical practices of oral history, and Brooke Bryan, assistant professor of writing and digital literacy at Antioch College, who presented on oral history in the liberal arts. Academic Engagement & Digital Initiatives Coordinator Megan Mitchell led a technical session on how to use open source web publishing platforms.

Senior history major Nancy Handelman says the pairing of her interests led her to participate in the History Design Lab Institute. “The project merged two things I am interested in: history and storytelling. As a senior, I'm thinking about what I'm going to do post-grad, and this institute was a good opportunity to learn about broader fields within history that also resonated with me personally.”

Project participants learned skills such as the basics of interviewing, which included methods on how to successfully structure interviews, storytelling, and career pathways for those interested in public and oral history.

“The institute got my creative gears turning in terms of how to go about interviewing someone correctly, with the right ethics, techniques or strategies, and how to hone in on a subject to pursue,” says Handelman.

The institute also featured three ongoing historical research projects, including the Shirley Graham Du Bois Project, the Latina/o/x Orla History of Northeast Ohio Project, and Remembering Oberlin Public Schools/Harvesting School Stories Project, as a means of exploring collaborative historical research methods. 

“The project presentations are really important because some of the participants want to launch a project and had been collecting stories, but they weren’t sure how to get started,” says Nunley. “This gave people the opportunity to ask questions such as, ‘where did you even begin?’”


The History Design Lab Institute was sponsored by the Bonner Center for Community-Engaged Learning, Teaching, & Research; Oberlin College Department of History; Gertrude B. Lemle Teaching Center; and the History Design Lab.

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