Oral History

Oral history is a rigorous research method that seeks to enhance our understanding of the past by gathering, recording, preserving, and disseminating firsthand accounts of participants in historical events whose experiences and perspectives are not typically reflected in the dominant historical narrative. Thoroughly-prepared historians conduct and record in-depth interviews with willing narrators whose stories shape and become part of the historical record. Interview recordings and transcripts are preserved and made available to future researchers or other interested parties in university archives, local or state historical societies, or other repositories.   

Oral history can also capture the legacy of an organization, community, or movement. Its exacting standards can create an enduring record of a collective that honors the contributions of its individual members and uses past experience to guide the way to a better future.

Information gathered through the oral history method can be put to a variety of uses. Professional and lay historians might use this primary source material as the basis of books or journal articles. Organizations can extract information from the interviews for purposes of written or digital marketing and promotion. Oral histories can be adapted for use in museum exhibits, podcasts, theatrical productions, documentary film, websites, or public lecture series. Communities might gather their residents’ oral histories for use in public events, anniversary celebrations, and fund-raising efforts.

All oral history interviews are conducted in accordance with the “Principles and Best Practices” established by the Oral History Association (http://www.oralhistory.org/about/principles-and-practices/). This means that: oral historians fully inform narrators about the goals, scope, method, and potential uses of the interviews; narrators are voluntary participants who grant their explicit consent to participate in the project; oral historians will provide narrators with appropriate information, consent, and legal release forms regarding copyright, preservation, access, and use; narrators have the right to determine the limits of their participation in the interview and place restrictions on use of and access to interview materials.


Dr. Kim Heikkila

Kim Heikkila is an experienced oral historian, skilled researcher, accomplished educator, and successful author. She earned her Ph.D. in American Studies, with a minor in Feminist Studies, from the University of Minnesota in 2002, having completed Columbia University’s Oral History Summer Institute in 2000. Her dissertation, G.I. Gender: Vietnam War-Era Women Veterans and U.S. Citizenship, was based on interviews with twenty women Vietnam veterans, both nurses and enlisted and line officer women, from across the country. This work earned the support of the University of Minnesota, the P.E.O. Sisterhood, the National Women’s Studies Association, and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.  After completing graduate school, Heikkila began an oral history project for the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) focused on nurses who had served in the U.S.-Vietnam war. The resulting book, Sisterhood of War: Minnesota Women in Vietnam, was published in 2011 by the Minnesota Historical Society Press and was a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award and a Hognander Minnesota History Award. Her new book, Booth Girls: Pregnancy, Adoption, and the Secrets We Kept, is also based on oral history interviews and will be published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press in March 2021.

Heikkila taught college-level U.S. history courses at St. Catherine University and other Twin Cities-area colleges for more than 12 years, during which time she trained more than 200 students to conduct oral history interviews.  From 2004 to 2006, she taught a course on the U.S.-Vietnam war at Anoka Ramsey Community College, for which her students conducted oral history interviews with Vietnam veterans for the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.  In 2006, the Oral History Association awarded her its Post-Secondary Teaching Award for these efforts. She decided to leave academia after the 2015-16 school year in order to pursue oral history work full-time.

Heikkila has delivered public presentations about her oral history work at the annual meetings of organizations such as the Oral History Association, Organization of American Historians, and the Association of Midwest Museums. She has also delivered more than 35 talks about her book to groups and organizations across the state.

Heikkila lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and son. She spends much of her spare time at Element Gym and CoMotion: Center for Movement where she is a coach and program co-director for Rock Steady Boxing Saint Paul, a non-contact boxing program for people with Parkinson’s.