What is oral history?

Oral history is a research methodology embraced by a wide range of practitioners from students and academics to journalists, documentary-makers and podcasters and community-based historians and family historians.

It involves extended, recorded interviews undertaken for a particular purpose and often with a view to eventual archiving for preservation and public access.

The oral history interview is a collaboration of both interviewer and interviewee and is based on ethical standards and informed consent.

Typically an oral history interview will use a whole-of-life approach, but it may be based on a particular theme or event.

Its increasing use as a methodology is at least partly due to its appeal as a means of recording and recognising the little-heard voices of society – history ‘from below’.

Why use oral history?

Some of the features of oral history that make it different and particularly useful for researchers include:

  • orality – much can be learned through the ‘oral’ nature of speech: pauses, rhythm, emotional punctuation all play a part in the storytelling
  • narrative – interviewees recount their memories as stories, framed within language, culture and context
  • subjectivity – oral testimony involves interviewees remembering past events through the lens of current experience and beliefs, the search for meaning can be as instructive as the uncovering of objective ‘facts’.

Planning your oral history project

Consider:

  • Practitioner - ensure appropriately skilled and experienced
  • Recording format - broadcast quality audio only and/or video
  • Documentation - rights agreement, contract
  • Post-interview uses - such as research, multimedia, book
  • Archiving - how and where interviews will be stored for the long-term

Watch a video – Dr. Alexander Freund Co-Director of the University of Winnipeg’s Oral History Centre explains the theory, practice and value of oral history.

Oral history is a history built around people. It thrusts life into history itself and widens its scope. It allows heroes not just from leaders, but also from the unknown majority of the people.

Paul Thompson

The first thing that makes oral history different … is that it tells us less about events than about their meaning.

Alessandro Portelli

Oral history is a picture of the past in people’s own words.

Beth Robertson

Oral history is a catch-all term applied to two things. It refers to the process of conducting and recording interviews with people in order to elicit information from them about the past. But an oral history is also the product of that interview, the narrative account of past events.

Lynn Abrams

Memory is the core of oral history, from which meaning can be extracted and preserved. Simply put, oral history collects memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews. An oral history interview generally consists of a well-prepared interviewer questioning and interviewee and recording the exchange…

Donald A. Ritchie

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