We all have stories to tell, stories we have lived from the inside out. We give our experiences an order. We organize the memories of our lives into stories.
Oral history listens to these stories. Oral history is the systematic collection of living people’s testimony about their own experiences. Historians have finally recognized that the everyday memories of everyday people, not just the rich and famous, have historical importance. If we do not collect and preserve those memories, those stories, then one day they will disappear forever.
Your stories and the stories of the people around you are unique, valuable treasures for your family and your community. You and your family members can preserve unwritten family history using oral history techniques. Likewise you and your community can discover and preserve unwritten history large and small. Oral history is so flexible that people of all ages can adapt the techniques of asking and listening to create and learn about history and historical narratives.
Many people become concerned about “doing it right,” yet they also recognize that a voice on tape is better than nothing at all. So they try just a simple interview, just talking to someone for an hour. Ten years later such people are thankful that they made the effort, and those who did not …well, they have regrets.
Recorded Voices from the Past, Wisdom for the Present and Future: Capturing and Learning from Oral History.
What is Oral History?
- Oral History is the recording of memories of people’s unique life experiences. Often the only way to find out about the past is to ask someone who knows about it.
- Oral history creates a record or supplements existing ones. Through oral history the past comes alive. People can be much more interesting than documents.
- Oral history preserves the past for now and for the future.
The recording of oral history is a two-way process in which someone shares memories with an interviewer who has carefully planned an interview.
- Oral history preserves voices, accents and vocabularies of individuals interviewed.
How may it be used?
- to trace the history of a local community
- for family history
- to encourage children to treat people as living history books, at the same time increasing understanding between generations
- for inclusion in interactive websites
Folklore versus History
There are both Folklore and Historical approaches to conducting oral history. While the objectives of the respective approaches are often compatible, it is important to understand the nuances.
With the folklorists, often it is not what is said, but how it is said, that is important. Often the interview focuses on individual characteristics. Folklorists consider the audio recording as a primary source document. They argue that a transcription cannot capture the accents, voice inflections, tone, and emotions that are lost in transcription.
Folklorists especially love video-recording interviews to capture the individual’s demeanour and facial expressions.
Historians are interesting in oral history for the information yielded. The interview focuses on the events and people that the interviewee was involved with. Historians also love oral history as interviewees often provide lively, insightful quotes suitable for insertion into a text.
Historians understand that oral history is not a perfect means to capture history due to the foibles of the human mind. Consequently, interviewees are strongly encouraged to review transcripts or interview summaries to check dates, names, places, and other information for historical accuracy.
While respecting the aims of the folklorist, this project aims to take the historical approach in capturing our family history.
I hope that these pages will encourage you to take the time and make the effort!