Oral history

An Evergreen Protective Association volunteer recording an oral history at Greater Rosemont History Day

Oral history is the collection and study of historical information about individuals, families, important events, or everyday life using audiotapes, videotapes, or transcriptions of planned interviews. These interviews are conducted with people who participated in or observed past events and whose memories and perceptions of these are to be preserved as an aural record for future generations. Oral history strives to obtain information from different perspectives and most of these cannot be found in written sources. Oral history also refers to information gathered in this manner and to a written work (published or unpublished) based on such data, often preserved in archives and large libraries.[1][2][3][4] Knowledge presented by Oral History (OH) is unique in that it shares the tacit perspective, thoughts, opinions and understanding of the interviewee in its primary form.[5]

The term is sometimes used in a more general sense to refer to any information about past events that people who experienced them tell anybody else,[6][7] but professional historians usually consider this to be oral tradition. However, as the Columbia Encyclopedia[1] explains:

Primitive societies have long relied on oral tradition to preserve a record of the past in the absence of written histories. In Western society, the use of oral material goes back to the early Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides, both of whom made extensive use of oral reports from witnesses. The modern concept of oral history was developed in the 1940s by Allan Nevins and his associates at Columbia University.

In modern times

Oral history has become an international movement in historical research. Oral historians in different countries have approached the collection, analysis, and dissemination of oral history in different modes. However, it should also be noted that there are many ways of creating oral histories and carrying out the study of oral history even within individual national contexts.

In the words of the Columbia Encyclopedia:[1]

The discipline came into its own in the 1960s and early 70s when inexpensive tape recorders were available to document such rising social movements as civil rights, feminism, and anti–Vietnam War protest. Authors such as Studs Terkel, Alex Haley, and Oscar Lewis have employed oral history in their books, many of which are largely based on interviews. In another important example of the genre, a massive archive covering the oral history of American music has been compiled at the Yale School of Music. By the end of the 20th cent. oral history had become a respected discipline in many colleges and universities. At that time the Italian historian Alessandro Portelli and his associates began to study the role that memory itself, whether accurate or faulty, plays in the themes and structures of oral history. Their published work has since become standard material in the field, and many oral historians now include in their research the study of the subjective memory of the persons they interview.

Great Britain and Ireland

The Bureau of Military History conducted over 1700 interviews with veterans of the First World War and related episodes in Ireland. The documentation was released for research in 2003.[8]

Since the early 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 becoming a key component in community histories. Oral history continues to be an important means by which non-academics can actively participate in the compilation and study of history. However, practitioners across a wide 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 website.[9]

During 1998 and 1999, forty BBC local radio stations recorded personal oral histories from a broad cross-section of the population for the series The Century Speaks. The result was 640 half-hour radio documentaries, broadcast in the final weeks of the millennium, and one of the largest single oral history collections in Europe, the Millennium Memory Bank (MMB). The interview based recordings are held by the British Library Sound Archive in the oral history collection.[10]

In one of the largest memory project anywhere, The BBC in 2003-6 invited its audiences to send in recollections of the homefront in the Second World War. It put 47,000 of the recollections online, along with 15,000 photographs.[11]

In the United States

Elite studies

In 1948, Allan Nevins, a Columbia University historian, established the Columbia Oral History Research Office, now known as the Columbia Center for Oral History, with a mission of recording, transcribing, and preserving oral history interviews. The Regional Oral History Office was founded in 1954 as a division of the University of California, Berkeley's Bancroft Library.[12] In 1967, American oral historians founded the Oral History Association, and British oral historians founded the Oral History Society in 1969. In 1981, Mansel G. Blackford, a business historian at Ohio State University, argued that oral history was a useful tool to write the history of corporate mergers.[13] More recently, Harvard Business School launched the Creating Emerging Markets project, which "explores the evolution of business leadership in Africa, Asia, and Latin America throughout recent decades" through oral history. "At its core are interviews, many on video, by the School’s faculty with leaders or former leaders of firms and NGOs who have had a major impact on their societies and enterprises across three continents."[14] 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.

Oral history began with a focus on national leaders in the United States,[15] but has expanded to include groups representing the entire population. In Britain, the influence of 'history from below' and interviewing people who had been 'hidden from history' was more influential. However, in both countries elite oral history has emerged as an important strand. Scientists, for example, have been covered in numerous oral history projects. Doel (2003) discusses the use of oral interviews by scholars as primary sources, He lists major oral history projects in the history of science begun after 1950. Oral histories, he concludes, can augment the biographies of scientists and help spotlight how their social origins influenced their research. Doel acknowledges the common concerns historians have regarding the validity of oral history accounts. He identifies studies that used oral histories successfully to provide critical and unique insight into otherwise obscure subjects, such as the role scientists played in shaping US policy after World War II. Interviews furthermore can provide road maps for researching archives, and can even serve as a fail-safe resource when written documents have been lost or destroyed.[16] Roger D. Launius (2003) shows the huge size and complexity of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) oral history program since 1959. NASA systematically documented its operations through oral histories. They can help to explore broader issues regarding the evolution of a major federal agency. The collection consists primarily of oral histories conducted by scholars working on books about the agency. Since 1996, however, the collection has also included oral histories of senior NASA administrators and officials, astronauts, and project managers, part of a broader project to document the lives of key agency individuals. Launius emphasizes efforts to include such less-well-known groups within the agency as the Astrobiology Program, and to collect the oral histories of women in NASA.[17]

Folklore roots and ordinary people

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 Federal Writers' Project—part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA)—sent out interviewers to collect accounts from various groups, including surviving witnesses of the Civil War, slavery, and other major historical events.[18] 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 1946, David P. Boder, a professor of psychology at the 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.[19]

Many state and local historical societies have oral history programs. Sinclair Kopp (2002) report on the Oregon Historical Society's program. It began in 1976 with the hiring of Charles Digregorio, who had studied at Columbia with Nevins. Thousands of sound recordings, reel-to-reel tapes, transcriptions, and radio broadcasts have made it one of the largest collections of oral history on the Pacific Coast. In addition to political figures and prominent businessmen, the Oregon Historical Society has done interviews with minorities, women, farmers, and other ordinary citizens, who have contributed extraordinary stories reflecting the state's cultural and social heritage. Hill (2004) encourages oral history projects in high school courses. She demonstrates a lesson plan that encourages the study of local community history through interviews. By studying grassroots activism and the lived experiences of its participants, her high school students came to appreciate how African Americans worked to end Jim Crow laws in the 1950s.

Naison (2005) describes the Bronx African American History Project (BAAHP), an oral community history project developed by the Bronx County Historical Society. Its goal was to document the histories of black working- and middle-class residents of the South Bronx neighborhood of Morrisania in New York City since the 1940s.[20]

In post-dictatorships

Belarus oral history

As of 2015, since the government-run historiography in modern Belarus almost fully excludes repression during the epoch when Belarus was part of the Soviet Union, only private initiatives cover these aspects. Citizens' groups in Belarus use the methods of oral history and record narrative interviews on video: the Virtual Museum of Soviet Repression in Belarus presents a full Virtual museum with intense use of oral history. The Belarusian Oral History Archive project also provides material based on oral history recordings.

Czech oral history

Czech oral history (likewise the oral history applied in others so called post communist countries) did not experience that building period in 1960s and 1970s, partly at the beginning in 1980s, where in the world is spoken about social movement more than a method. With knowledge of the thing I can say that this development was in its beginning probably necessary and well- founded. Understandable (in its beginning) was also some political activism. In 1970s and 1980s in Czech Republic (similarly in other countries of so-called socialist block) was OH absolutely unknown. History and historians did not know about it. Isolate attempts to invite witnesses for scientific project ended without accomplishment (ideological task, guiltlessness of method, imperfect technique, etc.). Hypothetically, if the OH had been discovered earlier for Czech historians, it could have acted positive and surely combative activist role (as A. Freund. P. Thomson and many others speak about it) like in other authoritative regimes. It could have aimed at enquiry of proscribe groups: dissent or prisoners of conscience. To cognate research or any other allusion about just mentioned groups of fellow – citizen was until 1989 totally avoided by communist historiography. Oral History was for the first time used in the mid 1990s but we can speak about some kind of progress for past six years, as Sean Field speaks about it, when it has transformed from disregard and criticized to possibly respect. In the first years of 21st century one can even speak about boom of Oral History in the Czech republic.[21] In 2000, The Oral History Center (COH) at the Institute of Contemporary History, Academy of Sciences, Czech Republic (AV ČR) was established.[22] Next year, in 2001, was created association Post Bellum.


"Students in the Period of the Fall of Communism - Life Stories", published as the book One Hundred Student Revolutions by M. Vaněk and M. Otáhal (1999), was funded by the Grant Agency AV ČR. The project "Political Elites and Dissidents during the Period of So-called Normalization - Historical Interviews" was funded by the GA ČR and resulted in two publications: Victors? Vanquished (2005), a two-volume collection of 50 exemplary interviews; and a compilation of original interpretive essays entitled The Powerful?! or Helpless?! These publications demonstrate that oral history can contribute greatly to our understanding of many interesting fields in human lives and history itself, such as the motives behind the dissidents' activities, the formation of opposition groups, communication between dissidents and state representatives and the emergence of ex-communist elites and their decision-making processes. "An Investigation into Czech Society during the 'Normalization' Era: Biographic Narratives of Workers and the Intelligentsia" (funded by the Grant Agency AV ČR). The book of interpretations (called "Ordinary People...?!") (2009). All oral history centers in the Czech Republic emphasize educational activities (seminars, lectures, conferences), archiving and maintaining interview collections, and providing consultations to those interested in the method.[22]

Post Bellum is a non-profit organization founded in 2001 by a group of historians and journalists interested in increasing the knowledge of people regarding events that occurred in the 20th Century within the Czech Republic and surrounding European countries. Post Bellum has collected thousands of witness accounts by conducting interviews with people who lived through significant periods in history. Their documentation project created in 2008, Memory of Nation, is the biggest oral history project in the Czech Republic.[23] They are working together with Czech Radio and Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes.

In Italy

Alessandro Portelli is an Italian oral historian. He is known for his work which compared workers' experiences in Harlan County, Kentucky and Terni, Italy. Other oral historians have drawn on Portelli's analysis of memory, identity, and the construction of history.

In Spain

Because of repression during the Franco dictatorship (1939–75), the development of oral history in Spain was quite limited until the 1970s. It became well-developed in the early 1980s, and often had a focus on the Civil War years (1936–39), especially regarding the losers whose stories had been suppressed. The field was based at the University of Barcelona. Professor Mercedes Vilanova was a leading exponent, and combined it with her interest in quantification and social history. The Barcelona group sought to integrate oral sources with traditional written sources to create mainstream, not ghettoized, historical interpretations. They sought to give a public voice to neglected groups, such as women, illiterates, political leftists, and ethnic minorities.[24]

In the Middle East

The Middle East is ideal for oral history methods of research, mainly because of the relative lack in written and archival history and because of its population transfer, making many refugees and émigrés ideal objects for oral history research.


External video
How to Record an Oral History Interview, University of Leicester[25]

Historians, folklorists, anthropologists, human geographers, 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 "informed consent" 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 "life reviews," conducted with people at the end of their careers. Other interviews focus on a specific period or a specific event in people's lives, such as in the case of war veterans or survivors of a hurricane.

Feldstein (2004) considers oral history to be akin to journalism, Both are committed to uncovering truths and compiling narratives about people, places, and events. Felstein says each could benefit from adopting techniques from the other. Journalism could benefit by emulating the exhaustive and nuanced research methodologies used by oral historians. The practice of oral historians could be enhanced by utilizing the more sophisticated interviewing techniques employed by journalists, in particular, the use of adversarial encounters as a tactic for obtaining information from a respondent.[26]

The first oral history archives focused on interviews with prominent politicians, diplomats, military officers, and business leaders. By the 1960s and '70s, influenced by the rise of new social history, interviewing began to be employed more often when historians investigated 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 memory—both individual and community—is 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."

Writers who use oral history have often discussed its relationship to historical truth. Gilda O'Neill writes in Lost Voices, an oral history of East End hop-pickers: "I began to worry. Were the women's, and my, memories true or were they just stories? I realised that I had no 'innocent' sources of evidence - facts. I had, instead, the stories and their tellers' reasons for remembering in their own particular ways.'[27] Duncan Barrett, one of the co-authors of The Sugar Girls describes some of the perils of relying on oral history accounts: "On two occasions, it became clear that a subject was trying to mislead us about what happened – telling a self-deprecating story in one interview, and then presenting a different, and more flattering, version of events when we tried to follow it up. ... often our interviewees were keen to persuade us of a certain interpretation of the past, supporting broad, sweeping comments about historical change with specific stories from their lives."[28] Alessandro Portelli argues that oral history is valuable nevertheless: "it tells us less about events as such than about their meaning [...] the unique and precious element which oral sources force upon the historian ... is the speaker's subjectivity."[29]

Regarding the accuracy of oral history, Jean-Loup Gassend concludes in the book Autopsy of a Battle "I found that each witness account can be broken down into two parts: 1) descriptions of events that the witness participated in directly, and 2) descriptions of events that the witness did not actually participate in, but that he heard about from other sources. The distinction between these two parts of a witness account is of the highest importance. I noted that concerning events that the witnesses participated in, the information provided was surprisingly reliable, as was confirmed by comparison with other sources. The imprecision or mistakes usually concerned numbers, ranks, and dates, the first two tending to become inflated with time. Concerning events that the witness had not participated in personally, the information was only as reliable as whatever the source of information had been (various rumors); that is to say, it was often very unreliable and I usually discarded such information."[30]


National and international organizations promote scholarship in the field. The Oral History Review[31] is a scholarly journal begun in 1974. The Oral History Journal in Britain was established two years before the Review.[32] H-ORALHIST is an H-Net Discussion Network established in 1996, based on an earlier listserv, OHA-L, developed by Terry Birdwhistell of the University of Kentucky.[33] It works by email and knits together an international network of researchers interested in creating and using oral history. Its daily email reach 3400 subscribers with discussions of current projects, teaching methods, and the state of historiography in the field. H-ORALHIST is especially interested in methods of teaching oral history to graduate and undergraduate students in diverse settings. H-ORALHIST publishes syllabi, outlines, handouts, bibliographies, tables of contents of journals, guides to term papers, listings of new sources, library catalogs and archives, and reports on new software, datasets, and other materials. H-ORALHIST posts announcements of conferences, fellowships, and jobs. It also carries information about new books and commissions book reviews.

See also


  1. 1 2 3 Article on oral history from the Columbia Encyclopedia
  2. Definition of oral history from the Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science
  3. Definition of oral history from the American Heritage Dictionary
  4. Definition of oral history from the Oxford Online Dictionaries
  5. Uniqueness of oral history from Oral History Sources as Learning Materials
  6. Definition of oral history from the Macmillan Dictionary
  7. Definition of oral history from the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary
  8. Fearghal McGarry, "'Too many histories'? The Bureau of Military History and Easter 1916." History Ireland (2011) pp: 26-29.
  9. "Making Oral History". Institute of Historical Research.
  10. "Oral history | British Library". Sounds. Retrieved 2016-06-11.
  11. See BBC, "WW2 People's War" (2006)
  12. "About the Regional Oral History Office". Regional Oral History Office.
  13. Blackford, Mansel (May 5–7, 1981). "The Merger Process: An Inside Look by Oral History". Business and Economic History. Cambridge University Press. 10: 57–59. Retrieved November 5, 2016 via JSTOR. (registration required (help)).
  14. "Creating Emerging Markets". Harvard Business School.
  15. Ritchie 2010 considers Senators and other top leaders.
  16. Doel, Ronald E. "Oral History of American Science: a Forty-year Review." History of Science 2003 41(4): 349-378.
  17. Roger D. Launius, "'We Can Lick Gravity, but Sometimes the Paperwork Is Overwhelming': NASA , Oral History, and the Contemporary Past." Oral History Review 2003 30(2): 111-128.
  18. "American Life Histories". WPA Writers' Project 1936–1940. Library of Congress.
  19. Marziali, Carl (26 October 2001). "Mr. Boder Vanishes". This American Life.
  20. Mark Naison, The Bronx African American History Project." OAH Newsletter 2005 33(3): 1, 14.
  21. http://www2.iisg.nl/esshc/programme.asp?selyear=12&pap=10270
  22. 1 2 "Archived copy". Archived from the original on January 25, 2012. Retrieved August 7, 2012.
  23. "Memory of Nations". Memoryofnations.eu. Retrieved 2016-06-11.
  24. Mercedes Vilanova, "The Struggle for a History without Adjectives: A Note on Using Oral Sources in Spain," Oral History Review (1997) 24#1 pp. 81-90 in JSTOR
  25. "Interviewing for Research". University of Leicester. Retrieved March 28, 2016.
  26. Mark Feldstein, "Kissing Cousins: Journalism and Oral History." Oral History Review 2004 31(1): 1-22
  27. Gilda O'Neill. Lost Voices. Arrow. p. 146. ISBN 978-0-09-949836-0.
  28. "Oral History & Creative Non-Fiction: Telling the Lives of the Sugar Girls". History Workshop Online. 11 March 2012. Retrieved 2012-03-11.
  29. Portelli, Alessandro. "The Peculiarities of Oral History". History Workshop Journal. No. 12(1) (1981): 96–107.
  30. Jean-Loup Gassend. Autopsy of a Battle, the Allied Liberation of the French Riviera, August September 1944. Schiffer. p. 12. ISBN 978-0-7643-4580-7.
  31. home page. Retrieved 28 May 2013.
  32. See home page
  33. "About this Network | H-OralHist | H-Net". Networks.h-net.org. 2016-04-02. Retrieved 2016-06-11.

Further reading

World War II

Vietnam War



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