is the collection and study of historical
History is the discovery, collection, organization, and presentation of information about past events. History can also mean the period of time after writing was invented. Scholars who write about history are called historians...
information about individuals, families, important events, or everyday life using audiotapes, videotapes, or transcriptions of planned interview
An interview is a conversation between two people where questions are asked by the interviewer to obtain information from the interviewee.- Interview as a Method for Qualitative Research:"Definition" -...
s. 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also refers to information gathered in this manner and to a written work (published or unpublished) based on such data, often preserved in archives and large libraries.
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, but professional historian
A historian is a person who studies and writes about the past and is regarded as an authority on it. Historians are concerned with the continuous, methodical narrative and research of past events as relating to the human race; as well as the study of all history in time. If the individual is...
s usually consider this to be oral tradition
Oral tradition and oral lore is cultural material and traditions transmitted orally from one generation to another. The messages or testimony are verbally transmitted in speech or song and may take the form, for example, of folktales, sayings, ballads, songs, or chants...
. However, as the Columbia Encyclopedia 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
Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus, Caria and lived in the 5th century BC . He has been called the "Father of History", and was the first historian known to collect his materials systematically, test their accuracy to a certain extent and arrange them in a...
Thucydides was a Greek historian and author from Alimos. His History of the Peloponnesian War recounts the 5th century BC war between Sparta and Athens to the year 411 BC...
, 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
Allan Nevins was an American historian and journalist, renowned for his extensive work on the history of the Civil War and his biographies of such figures as President Grover Cleveland, Hamilton Fish, Henry Ford, and John D. Rockefeller.-Life:Born in Camp Point, Illinois, Nevins was educated at...
and his associates at Columbia University.
Oral history 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 ways. 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:
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.
Oral history in Britain and Northern Ireland
Since the 1990s, 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
The Oral History Society promotes the collection, Preservation and use of recorded memories of the past.As well as offering practical advice and support, the Society aims to raise standards in oral history practices across a range of activities and disciplines.Through an annual conference, other...
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.
In one of the largest memory projects anywhere, the BBC invited its audiences from 2003 to 2006 to send in recollections of the home front in the Second World War. The BBC made 47,000 of the recollections and 15,000 photographs available on its website.
Modern oral history in the United States
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
Slavery is a system under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold, and are forced to work. Slaves can be held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase or birth, and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to demand compensation...
, and other major historical events. The Library of Congress
The Library of Congress is the research library of the United States Congress, de facto national library of the United States, and the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States. Located in three buildings in Washington, D.C., it is the largest library in the world by shelf space and...
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
Joseph Ferdinand Gould was an American eccentric, also known as Professor Seagull. Often homeless, he pretended to be the author of the longest book ever written, an Oral History of the Contemporary World...
, who claimed to be collecting “An Oral History of Our Time”. 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 the Illinois Institute of Technology
Illinois Institute of Technology, commonly called Illinois Tech or IIT, is a private Ph.D.-granting university located in Chicago, Illinois, with programs in engineering, science, psychology, architecture, business, communications, industrial technology, information technology, design, and law...
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
Columbia University in the City of New York is a private, Ivy League university in Manhattan, New York City. Columbia is the oldest institution of higher learning in the state of New York, the fifth oldest in the United States, and one of the country's nine Colonial Colleges founded before the...
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
The Oral History Association is a professional association for oral historians and others interested in oral history. It is based in the United States but has international membership. Its mission is "to bring together all persons interested in oral history as a way of collecting and interpreting...
, and British oral historians founded the Oral History Society in 1969. 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 “informed consent” of those being interviewed. Usually this is achieved through a deed of gift
A deed of gift is a signed document that voluntarily and without recompense transfers ownership of real, personal, or intellectual property – such as a gift of materials – from one person or institution to another. It should include any possible conditions specifying access, use, preservation, etc...
, 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.
The first oral history archives focused on interviews with prominent politicians, diplomats, military officers, and business leaders. By the 1960s and '70s, interviewing began to be employed more often when historians investigated history from below
History From Below is the follow-up album to 2008's critically acclaimed Ode to Sunshine by San Diego's Delta Spirit. The album was released on June 8, 2010.The band began streaming "White Table" on its website, http://www.deltaspirit.net, on May 6....
. 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
Delgamuukw v. British Columbia  3 S.C.R. 1010, also known as Delgamuukw vs. the Queen is a famous leading decision of the Supreme Court of Canada where the Court made its most definitive statement on the nature of aboriginal title in Canada....
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."
- Regional Oral History Office
The Regional Oral History Office is part of The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. The office was founded in 1954. ROHO conducts, analyzes, teaches about, and preserves oral history interviews on a wide range of topics related to the history of California and the United...
Regional Oral History Office (ROHO) Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley
- Regional Oral History Office / Rosie the Riveter / WWII American Homefront Project
- Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History
The Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky actively collects oral history interviews concentrating on 20th and 21st century Kentucky history, and maintains a collection of over 8,000 interviews made up of over 100 projects. The Center's emphasis has been on political,...
, University of Kentucky Libraries http://www.uky.edu/libraries/nunncenter
- Southern Oral History Program
Located in the Love House and Hutchins Forum in the historic district of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the Southern Oral History Program is a research institution dedicated to collecting and preserving oral histories from across the southern United States....
, University of North Carolina http://sohp.org
- Saving Stories: A blog about oral history, Kentucky, archives and digital technologies
- African American Oral History Collection at University of Louisville (Louisville, Kentucky)
- American Life Histories- WPA Writers' Project 1936–1940 at Library of Congress (US)
- Recollections of WWII - directory of oral history collections relating to WWII
- Food Stories- Food related oral history recordings from the British Library Sound Archive
- Over 600 Oral Histories of Combat Veterans, From the Witness to War Foundation (non-profit)
- In the First Person - index of 2,500+ collections of international oral histories in English
- Oral history collection of combat veterans
- Oral history collections and activities, including National Life Stories, at the British Library
- Oral History in the Teaching of U.S. History
- Australian Centre for Oral History
- StoryCorps, American oral history project, NPR broadcasts, with over 30,000 stories collected
- A rich vein of city records from Sept. 11, including more than 12,000 pages of oral histories rendered in the voices of 503 firefighters, paramedics, and emergency medical technicians
- American Century Oral History Project at St. Andrew's Episcopal School. One of the largest pre-collegiate oral history projects and archives in the U.S.
- Canadian Military Oral History Collection at University of Victoria, Special Collections
- Oral History of the U.S. House of Representatives
- U.S. Senate Oral History Project
- The HistoryMakers: African American Video Oral History Archive (non-profit)
- http://www.firstpersonusa.org A project of citizen historians concerned with preserving the memories of ordinary Americans.