Oral tradition

The plan

Each experience collecting oral tradition (interview) is unique and unrepeatable. This is part of the charm of the fieldwork. However, while the old adage says that "the best way to learn to do something is doing it," there are things that can –and should– be carefully planned.

Obtaining this type of sound material must be the result of a solidly pre-designed project. For starters, the topics of interest and the problems they want to answer must be clearly established. Examples of concrete topics may be the history of immigration, indigenous cultures or peasant cuisine. Within these (certainly broad and generic) areas, sub-fields must be delimited, and problems within them must be addressed.

[Note: The examples provided below belong to Argentina, country in which the author originally developed his activities].

  • Area of interest: History of immigration (general subject).
  • Sub-field: History of Italian immigrants who arrived in the province of Buenos Aires between 1870 and 1920 (topics are usually narrowed and concretized by adding features, that is, data answering the questions "who?", "where?", "how?" and "when?").
  • Problem: Absence of historical records on the development of the city of Pergamino (BA, Argentina) (the project must answer a specific question, an absence detected within the chosen subfield that can be filled through the oral collection work).

While carrying out this definition of areas and problems, it is advisable to carry out a wide bibliographic survey on the subject of interest, generating a current state of the issue, the basis of any project. What work has already been done in our area of research? What has been ascertained, what has been said? In this way, key information will be available to decide where to orient the work, and we will know what empty spaces really exist within the chosen field. This allows us to support the importance and usefulness of the project, and to avoid duplication of efforts (although we can pick up what is already known to examine it from a different angle, or to study its variation over time).

From this point, the objectives of the collection must be clearly specified, that is, what is intended when collecting testimonies. What do we want to learn from the people we want to interview? What do we want to do when this project is completed? A report? An exposition? A school program?

  • I want to learn the legends that the people tell, to write a book and that the community can read them even after the elders who know them are gone.
  • I want to know the history of the immigrants of the region, the native inhabitants and the birth of the community from the social actors themselves, so that the minimal details that originated the locality do not fade in time.
  • I want to know how to build canoes and make a video report so it can be used as a work project with young people.
  • I want to learn about the local games to write a report and to teach them in schools. Thus, children would use the language associated with them and learn about traditional activities.

Particular cases may seek to collect poetry, riddles, legends about natural elements, recipes for pastries, sayings, techniques of construction of musical instruments, medicine with vegetables, tales about the origin of the world, memories about concrete historical events, songs interpreted in a certain festival, or opinions about life from the point of view of a sub-culture or "urban tribe". The objectives should seek a response to the problem raised at the beginning of the project.

Once these basic points have been established, the work plan can be elaborated, a schematic structure in which all the steps to be taken during the project are recorded. It will include initial research, design of questions, selection of translators and interpreters, search and election of potential informants, meetings, interviews, processing of the obtained information and production of final reports. While the total project pursues the achievement of certain objectives, we must consider, for each step to be given, some goals.

  • Stage 1. Initial research
  • Goal: To obtain basic information about the region in which the project will be developed.

From the work plan, we can produce a schedule (a similar scheme, which also includes the duration of each stage and/or the dates) and the budget (basic estimate of the funds needed to develop each step of the project). This instance is extremely important when applying for funding for the job. The plan allows to correctly organize the steps to be taken (according to the objectives), the duration of each one and the elements necessary to achieve the goals proposed at each stage.

  • Etapa 1. Investigación inicial
  • Stage 1. Initial research
  • C/P: One month (April 2007) - Estimated budget: $ 100.- (photocopies, online consultations, digital downloads).
  • Goal: To obtain basic information about the region in which the project will be developed.

The budget should include:

  • Salaries: other interviewers, fees, interpreter(s), photographer, drawers, cartographers, etc.
  • Transportation: guide, means, extra expenses for equipment (count all the trips and possible accidents, not only the movements caused by the interviews).
  • Equipment: Recorder, microphones, speakers, headphones, batteries, cassettes, USB flash memory cards, memory cards, blank CDs/DVDs, camera or video, flash, desktop supplies, invoices and receipts, notebooks, maps, photo processing, camping gear, etc.
  • Accommodation and food.
  • Reports: printing, photocopying, etc.

In order to prepare a complete report of the use of the funds, a thorough inventory of the expenses must be kept. Funding entities normally request such reports upon completion of the project.

The success of the results obtained through the implementation of the project depends to a large extent on the accuracy and correctness with which such a planning process is carried out.