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Oral history is the recording, preservation and interpretation of historical information, based on the personal experiences and opinions of the speaker.
It often takes the form of eye-witness evidence about past events, but can include folklore, myths, songs and stories passed down over the years by word of mouth. While it is an invaluable way of preserving the knowledge and understanding of older people, it can also involve interviewing younger generations. More recently, the use of video recording techniques has expanded the realm of oral history beyond verbal forms of communication and into the realm of gesture. Oral history can be inaccurate and needs to be used carefully in order to confirm the accuracy of the recorded materials.
Oral history has emerged as an international movement. Oral historians in different countries have approached the collection, analysis and dissemination of oral history in different ways. However, it should also be noted that there are many ways of doing oral history even within single national contexts.
Since the 1970s oral history in Britain has grown from being a method in folklore studies (see for example the work of the School of Scottish Studies in the 1950s) to become a key component in community histories. Oral history continues to be an important means by which non-academics can actively participate in 'making history'. However practitioners across a range of academic disciplines have also developed the method into a way of recording, understanding and archiving narrated memories. Influences have included women's history and labour history.
In Britain the Oral History Society has played a key role in facilitating and developing the use of oral history.
A more complete account of the history of oral history in Britain and Northern Ireland can be found at Making Oral History  on the Institute of Historical Research's web site.
Contemporary oral history involves recording or transcribing eyewitness accounts of historical events. Some anthropologists started collecting recordings (at first especially of Native American folklore) on phonograph cylinders in the late 19th century. In the 1930s the Works Progress Administration (WPA) sent out interviewers to collect accounts from various groups, including surviving witnesses of the American Civil War, Slavery, and other major historical events. The Library of Congress also began recording traditional American music and folklore onto acetate discs. With the development of audio tape recordings after World War II, the task of oral historians became easier.
In 1942 the New Yorker published a profile of Joe Gould, who claimed to be collecting âAn Oral History of Our Time.â Although Gould never produced this work, the magazine story about him popularized the term oral history.
In 1946 David Boder, a professor of psychology at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, traveled to Europe to record long interviews with "displaced persons" -- most of them Holocaust survivors. Using the first device capable of capturing hours of audio -- the wire recorder -- Boder came back with the first recorded Holocaust testimonials and in all likelihood the first recorded oral histories of significant length.
In 1948 Alan Nevins, a Columbia University historian, established the Columbia Oral History Research Office, with a mission of recording, transcribing, and preserving oral history interviews. In 1967 American oral historians founded the Oral History Association, and in 1969 British oral historians founded the Oral History Society. There are now numerous national organizations and an International Oral History Association, which hold workshops and conferences and publish newsletters and journals devoted to oral history theory and practices.
Historians, folklorists, anthropologists, sociologists, journalists, linguists, and many others employ some form of interviewing in their research. Although multi-disciplinary, oral historians have promoted common ethics and standards of practice, most importantly the attaining of the âinformed consentâ of those being interviewed. Usually this is achieved through a deed of gift, which also establishes copyright ownership that is critical for publication and archival preservation.
Oral historians generally prefer to ask open-ended questions and avoid leading questions that encourage people to say what they think the interviewer wants them to say. Some interviews are âlife reviews,â conducted with those at the end of their careers, others are focused on a specific period in their lives, such as war veterans, or specific events, such as those with survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
The first oral history archives focused on interviews with prominent politicians, diplomats, military officers, and business leaders. By the 1960s and â70s, interviewing began being employed more often when historians investigate history from below. Whatever the field or focus of a project, oral historians attempt to record the memories of many different people when researching a given event. Interviewing a single person provides a single perspective. Individuals may misremember events or distort their account for personal reasons. By interviewing widely, oral historians seek points of agreement among many different sources, and also record the complexity of the issues. The nature of memoryâboth individual and communityâis as much a part of the practice of oral history as are the stories collected.
In 1997 the Supreme Court of Canada, in the Delgamuukw v. British Columbia trial, ruled that oral histories were just as important as written testimony. Of oral histories, it said "that they are tangential to the ultimate purpose of the fact-finding process at trial-the determination of the historical truth."
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