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History 301 - Strathman

What and Why Oral History?

What is an oral history?

In short an oral history is a recording of a speaker relating their memories and impressions of an event, a life, or family history of which they have first hand knowledge. This may be later transcribed into a text transcript in whole or part. 

It can also identify the field as defined by the Oral History Association: 

"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 is both the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word, and one of the most modern, initiated with tape recorders in the 1940s and now using 21st-century digital technologies."

Early oral histories were stories, in either spoken word or song form, to pass on community and family knowledge. These were fluid and subject to alteration over time due to human memory, a desire to be dramatic, or in light of new events altering how the past was perceived. With the advent of recording equipment, the ability to better preserve evidence  in a static form became available. Now, anyone with a smart phone can become a participant in recording history. But to be a true oral historian requires preparation and compliance with ethical and legal parameters. 

Why should a historian care about oral history? 

Not every historian will find themselves interviewing people for oral histories or using them in research. But having oral histories available provides additional rich primary evidence and brings life to what can be otherwise dry facts. Memories, captured ethically and accurately, provide evidence otherwise degraded or lost with the passage of time. 

More recent technologies capture not just words but include visual content that is also valuable in preserving the human record. 

An oral history in a drawer or otherwise not processed for archival storage and retrieval is of no use to anyone. Archivists and oral historians join forces to preserve the material in usable form, provide access and must plan for long-term digital storage.

As technologies undergo rapid change and environments threaten stored media, steps must be taken to preserve to the best of the historian's ability. 

  • Transcriptions made from the recording will provide information even if other technologies grow obsolete. 
  • Transcriptions must be accurate.
  • Technology must be evaluated for continued ability to operate.
  • Recordings should be migrated to stable media and monitored for continued operability. 
  • All materials should be stored in stable climate environments with proper packaging, documentation and permissions.