Memo for fiscal year 2021, updated 2020-02-20

[Archived] Question # 04: What resources would be necessary for OHA to create a more pro-active Oral History Program?


What resources would be necessary for the Office of Historic Alexandria (OHA) to create a more pro-active or robust Oral History Program? (Councilman Aguirre)


Staff’s recommendation to create a more proactive or robust Oral History Program would cost $106,882 in the first year and $105,557 annually in future years and take the following phased in approach.

Phase 1 – Expand the Oral History Program

Establish a robust and proactive oral history program, one that seeks out and prioritizes the voices of residents with compelling stories to tell before they are lost and engages with community volunteers to record, transcribe, and share our collective past. Establish and streamline a process for prioritizing and contacting oral history candidates that involves various stakeholders.

Utilizing new funding resources and a core of highly trained volunteers, shed light on past oral histories, likely filled with incredible details about early Alexandria, by transcribing and sharing the backlog of oral histories in our collection.

Phase 2 – Oral History in the Community   

Phase two would focus on three main goals:  

1.) Make Alexandria Legacies’ Oral History program a vital and relevant part of the City’s offerings to residents and visitors.   

2.) Tie the Oral History program to the EJI programs and the City’s commitment to social justice. We have discovered descendants of the men lynched and of people who participated in or were touched by the 1890s lynchings. It would be valuable to get their perspectives.

3.) Make oral history a part of the Marker Square Farmer’s Market. A hub of activity on Saturday mornings, this would be the perfect place to engage citizens in sharing their history and capture the stories of long-time vendors. In the summer months, the stage area could be used. Have a simple large box with a hanger and table inside. There is a chair next to the box. A citizen could bring an item of clothing or artifact from their family and have 5 minutes to tell a short story relating to its Alexandria history (participants would be vetted in advance) this would be a great way to promote the oral history program and determine candidates to be taped. The creation of a new oral history program opens myriad opportunities to have the community embrace this project and to see the value for future generations, including adding oral histories to the many walking tours the Office of Historic Alexandria offers the public.

The following is a summary of the costs associated with this expansion.

Expense Expense Annual or One-time
Full-time Research Historian  $                        90,159.00 Annual
Part-time Museum Aide II (seasonal) 8 hrs/wk  $                         8,858.00 Annual
Travel  $                         1,000.00 Annual
Final Cut Pro X editing software  $                            300.00 Annual
Dropbox Subscription to facilitate uploading  $                            240.00 Annual
Transcriptions  $                         3,200.00 Annual
Public Outreach  $                            800.00 Annual
 Annual Equipment and Software Maintenance and upgrades  $                          1,000.00  Annual
Camera  $                         1,200.00 One-Time
Tripod  $                            200.00 One-Time
Portable Lights  $                            100.00 One-Time
Wireless Microphone  $                            275.00 One-Time
SD Cards for Camera  $                            500.00 One-Time
Converter from Cassette to Digital  $                               50.00 One-Time
Budget for first year $                       106,882.00  
Annual Budget $                       105,557.00  


Current Oral History Program

Oral histories record and therefore, preserve memories, reflections, and thoughts of living people about their past experiences. According to the Oral History Association, a membership organization for all persons interested in oral history, “Oral history is both the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word, and one of the most modern, initiated with tape recorders in the 1940s and now using 21st-century digital technologies.”  

 Alexandria Legacies, the Alexandria Oral History Program, was developed through the City of Alexandria’s Office of Historic Alexandria (OHA) in the early 1980s. Since then, OHA has collected oral histories of long-time Alexandria residents. The Oral history program was expanded in 2005, and volunteers are actively conducting interviews and preparing transcriptions. A grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities supported oral history interviews with those representing different ethnic groups in the post-1970 immigrant communities of Alexandria. This is part of a multi-year project entitled Immigration Alexandria: Past, Present, and Future.   

Currently, over 110 transcribed oral histories are available on OHA’s website. Oral Histories are indexed by name, neighborhood, and subject. Subjects include The African American Community, Education, Potomac Yard, Living Legends of Alexandria, Historic Preservation, Civic Leaders, etc.  

 At this time, the oral history program has a part-time, eight hour a week staff person who is partially dedicated to overseeing the program, trains volunteers (10 currently active), and coordinates taking, transcribing, and finalizing oral histories with those in the community. The Oral History team currently posts 4 to 6 interviews a year, with the average time to complete an interview from start to finish measuring 5 to 6 months. OHA has a backlog of dozens of oral histories that need transcription.  

Future Oral History Program

An expanded Oral History Program would require major expenditures. Primary would be the hiring of a full-time research historian to coordinate the program. They would be responsible for converting interviews that were recorded on cassette tape into digital formats, scheduling interviews, training volunteers, keeping and maintaining the inventory of equipment, reaching out to potential interviewees, maintaining a transcription schedule, coordinating with a transcription company, and archiving the completed interviews. The Oral History Research Historian would also need to regularly go to conferences on oral history, in order to stay abreast of new developments in the field.   

An expanded Oral History Program would also require new and updated equipment. The program would need a new camera, tripod, portable lights, a device to convert cassette tape into digital formats, a wireless microphone, memory cards for the camera, an editing software program, and a DropBox business account to facilitate moving the data from the camera to the new digital storage space which ITS has indicated to OHA it can accommodate. It would regularly send the interviews to a transcription company, which charges approximately $160 per hour of recorded footage.   

If OHA had the funding to do this, a realistic goal would be 25 interviews a year, up from 4-6. Many of the delays are on the back end of the process, whether it be transcribing the interview, or the interviewee being slow to return their edits to OHA. As a means of comparison, the Northern Virginia Oral History project collected 295 oral history interviews between 1958 and 1990, an average of fewer than 10 interviews a year.  

 Expanding the Reach and Potential of Oral History

Oral history programs must constantly strive to demonstrate their importance to the community and to future historians, residents, and City staff who will continue to learn from these insights for generations to come. The expanded Alexandria Legacies oral history initiative, through proactive programs and projects, would spark community engagement and become a more visible history element, one that challenges the old vision of oral history – dusty audio tapes locked away in a historian’s attic.  

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