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Oral History

Oral History: An Overview

What is Oral History?

Oral history is a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events. Collecting someone's memories about their life or first-hand knowledge about a particular event typically entails being well-prepared with some background knowledge and pertinent questions before interviewing your subject. The recordings and their transcripts may be then used for research, publication, documentaries, museum exhibits or other forms of public presentation.

 

Why Conduct Oral Histories?

First-person narratives lend a personal dimension to history by recording ordinary people and everyday life experiences. Oral histories may even produce forgotten or untold stories. They can fill gaps in existing knowledge or history by providing insights based on first-hand memories, experiences, and even beliefs of people. Often, the people interviewed for an oral history project provide a variety of perspectives that may have been overlooked.

Adapted from Oral History Toolkit, Claremont Colleges Library

Preparing for the Interview

Perhaps the most important step in the oral history process is preparing for the interview. When you've decided on a topic or historical event, you then need to locate a person (also called the interviewee) whose experiences are relevant to your topic. By doing good research beforehand, you can create rapport with your interviewee and develop interview questions that can inspire storytelling. Both primary and secondary sources related to the era, topic, or theme of your interview should be consulted.

According to the Oral History Association, "Oral history interviews seek an in-depth account of personal experience and reflections, with sufficient time allowed for the narrators to give their story the fullness they desire. The content of oral history interviews is grounded in reflections on the past as opposed to commentary on purely contemporary events." 

Preparing for an oral history interview typically involves the following components, which are explained in more detail in the sections below:

  • Background research of both the narrator and the event or topic
  • Ensure interview equipment is operational
  • Develop a set of questions to guide or frame the interview
  • Consider legal/ethical implications of the project

Adapted from Oral History Toolkit, Claremont Colleges Library

Research Skills

Conducting oral histories can provide training and practice in many essential research skills. Some of those skills include:

  • Project planning
  • Critical thinking
  • Writing clear abstracts and descriptions
  • Community outreach
  • Good interviewing techniques
  • Ethics in interview and research processes
  • Time management
  • Integrating research through direct quote, paraphrase, and summary
  • Transcription and note taking

From Oral History Toolkit, Claremont Colleges Library