Oral history

Oral history

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 Oral history also refers to information gathered in this manner and to a written work (published or unpublished) based on such data, often preserved in archives and large libraries.[1][2][3][4]

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,[5][6] 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.


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:[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.

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 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.[7]

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, 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 “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 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.[8]

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 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, 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. 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.

Legal interpretation

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."

Further reading

See also

External links




  1. ^ a b c 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. ^ Definition of oral history from the Macmillan Dictionary
  6. ^ Definition of oral history from the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary
  7. ^ See BBC, "WW2 People's War" (2006)
  8. ^ Marziali, Carl (2001-10-26) "Mr. Boder Vanishes." "This American Life."

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  • Oral History — ist eine Methode der Geschichtswissenschaft, die auf dem Sprechenlassen von Zeitzeugen basiert. Dabei sollen die Zeitzeugen möglichst wenig vom Historiker beeinflusst werden. Nicht nur, aber gerade Personen aus der Unterschicht sollen auf diese… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Oral history — ist eine Methode der Geschichtswissenschaft, die auf der Befragung von Zeitzeugen basiert. Dabei sollen die Zeitzeugen möglichst wenig vom Historiker beeinflusst werden. Nicht nur, aber gerade Personen aus der Unterschicht sollen auf diese Weise… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Oral History — Oral His|to|ry [ ɔ:rəl hɪstəri ], die; [engl. oral history, aus: oral = mündlich u. history = Geschichte]: Geschichte, Geschichtswissenschaft, die sich mit der Befragung lebender Zeug(inn)en befasst. * * * Oral History   [ ɔːrəl hɪstərɪ,… …   Universal-Lexikon

  • Oral History — Oral His|to|ry [ ɔ:rəl histəri] die; <aus gleichbed. engl. oral history, eigtl. »mündliche Geschichte«, zu oral »mündlich (überliefert)« (vgl. ↑oral) u. history »Geschichte« aus lat. historia (vgl. ↑Historie)> Methode der modernen… …   Das große Fremdwörterbuch

  • oral history — oral histories N VAR Oral history consists of spoken memories, stories, and songs, and the study of these, as a way of communicating and discovering information about the past …   English dictionary

  • oral history — noun count or uncount the collection of recorded interviews with people about the past a. stories about life and events in the past that older people tell younger people …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • oral history — n. 1. historical data consisting of personal recollections, usually in the form of a tape recorded interview 2. the gathering and preservation of such data 3. a historical account based on such data …   English World dictionary

  • oral history — An approach to writing history that relies in large part on interviews with elderly people who provide retrospective data on the events, attitudes, and activities of their childhood, adolescence, and adult life in effect a transfer of the… …   Dictionary of sociology

  • oral history — noun 1. : tape recorded historical information obtained in interviews concerning personal experiences and recollections ; also : the study of such information 2. : a written work based on oral history • oral historian noun * * * noun, pl ⋯ ries …   Useful english dictionary

  • oral history — UK / US noun [countable/uncountable] Word forms oral history : singular oral history plural oral histories a) the collection of recorded interviews with people about the past b) stories about life and events in the past that older people tell… …   English dictionary

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