Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Oral History

What is Oral History?

“Oral history refers to both the interview process [between and interviewee and interviewer] and the products that result from a recorded spoken interview.”

“...oral history is grounded in thoughtful planning and careful follow-through of the agreed-upon process.”

-Oral history Association

Characteristics of Oral History - Linda Shopes

  1. It’s an interview - it is an exchange between a knowledgeable interviewer and a narrator.

  2. It’s recorded, preserved, and made available to others in its original form.

  3. It’s historical in intent - it looks for insights and perspectives into the past.

  4. It recognizes the element of subjectivity.

  5. It’s an inquiry that is in-depth.

Oral History is a Methodology Grounded in Process

“An interview becomes oral history only when it has been recorded, processed in some way, and made available…Availability for general research, reinterpretation, and verification defines oral history.”

– Donald Ritchie

“Oral history is characterized by a structured, systematic planning process, thorough research, careful consideration of copyright, emphasis on the depth and detail of information collected, and adherence to strict processing techniques.”

 – Barbara Sommers

Why is Oral History Important?

“The value of oral history lies largely in the way it helps to place people’s experiences within a larger social and historical context...oral history captures recollections about the past filtered through the lens of a changing personal and social context.”

- Oral History Association

What Oral History is Not

  • Oral history is not recordings of casual conversations, events, speeches, audio visual dairies or self-prompted testimony. They are not recordings that lack the guided dialog between an interviewer and an interviewee/narrator. 

  • Oral history is not interviews that are strictly timed.  They are self paced and may take more than one session to complete.

  • Oral history is not recordings that are recorded without the intent to preserve and make available for a wider audience. Archiving and preservation is a pillar of oral history methodology.  However narrators must grant permission to make their interview public and should have the ability to set parameters on preservation, access, and use.

  • Oral history is not interviewing in real time.  Oral history looks for insights and perspectives into the past.  It’s not capturing events as they are happening.  If you are capturing interviews as an event is unfolding, there needs to be follow-up later on to gain that reflection and historical perspective.