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Oral History

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.” - 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 in audio/visual format.

  3. It's preserved - made available to others in its original form.

  4. It’s historical in intent - it looks for insights and perspectives into the past from lived experiences.

  5. It recognizes subjectivity..

  6. 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 testimony. They are not recordings that lack the guided dialog between an interviewer and a narrator. 

  • Oral history is not interviews that are 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.