“Oral history is an interviewing technique through which to record the stories and lives of people, emphasize a diversity of voices, and investigate a topic of historical interest. Interviews can be conducted within a family or community, center upon a career or organization, intertwine around a shared experience or event. As a discipline, it is a valuable means of preserving the perspectives of individuals of all backgrounds and cultures, and a versatile tool for creating resources of chronology and memory… Oral history engages with the past and connects it to the present through an exploration of remembrance and the sharing of story.” ((A working definition of oral history as both a methodology and field unto itself; Cameron Vanderscoff and Erica Fugger, Columbia Center for Oral History Archives))
Oral Tradition and Folklore
For millennia, humans have been entranced by the power of narrative. Within ancient cultures, designated storytellers, among them the skald of Scandinavia, bhopa of India, seanchaí of Ireland, griot of Africa, Ashik of Turkey, and bards of Britain, were entrusted to memorize poems of family lineage and recite accounts of communal experiences. ((Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past: Oral History, 3rd Ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 27; Thomas A. Hale, “From the Griot of Roots to the Roots of Griot: A New Look at the Origins of a Controversial African Term for Bard.” Oral Tradition 12, no. 2 (1997): 249-278. www.journal.oraltradition.org/files/articles/12ii/2_Hale.pdf (accessed February 1, 2001).)) Adolescents learned of their heritage through tales conjured by their elders, which they in turn passed down to their own children.
Today, these stories are known as “oral tradition.” They make up much of our knowledge of civilizations whose customs emphasize the spoken word, and oftentimes, those whose history has been suppressed by colonialism. These narratives and folklore have been formally recorded since Thomas Edison’s invention of the wax cylinder in the late nineteenth century. Some of the earliest ethnographic initiatives preserved Passamaquoddy American Indian songs, language, and stories. ((Donald A. Ritchie, Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide. 2nd Ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 19, 21; Library of Congress. “The Voices of America.” American Treasures of the Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/trr015.html (accessed February 1, 2014).))
While influenced by these practices, the contemporary field of oral history draws its methods from other tenets of modern thought and documentation. Donald Ritchie defines oral history as the “collection of memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews.” ((ibid, 19)) Alessandro Portelli avows that it is this emphasis on the interview—the exchange that occurs between a narrator (interviewee) and interviewer—which distinguishes it from other forms of vocalized stories. ((ibid; Alessandro Portelli, The Battle of Valle Giulia: Oral History and the Art of Dialogue (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), 3.))
Rebecca Sharpless asserts that the earliest examples of oral history interviewing can be found in the court scribes of the Zhou dynasty in China, and within the Greek war histories written by Herodotus and Thucydides. While she notes that Spanish missionary Bernardino de Sahagún used oral sources to formulate a history of modern-day Mexico’s indigenous populations in the sixteenth century, Ritchie describes how Congregationalist minister William Gorden utilized interviews to document the Battles of Lexington and Concord at the start of the American Revolution. ((Rebecca Sharpless, “The History of Oral History,” History of Oral History: Foundations and Methodology, Thomas L. Charlton, Lois E. Myers, and Rebecca Sharpless, eds. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), 9-10; Ritchie, Doing Oral History, 19-20)) Eighteenth century English writer Samuel Johnson is quoted as saying, “A man, by talking with those of different sides, who were actors in it [a historical event] and putting down all that he hears, may in time collect the materials of a good narrative. You are to consider, all history was at first oral.” ((Ritchie, Doing Oral History, 20; Donald A. Ritchie, “The Evolution of Oral History,” The Oxford Handbook of Oral History, Donald A. Ritchie, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 4; James Boswell, John Wilson Croker, and John Wright, The Life of Samuel Johnson: Including a Journal of His Tour to the Hebrides, Volume 5 (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1846), 144))
In this sense, documented dialogues had long made up the historical record across time and culture. Yet, while the earliest historians may have supported the use of verbal testimony to formulate a more comprehensive portrait of an event, the trend towards applying scientific methods to history in the nineteenth century placed an emphasis on primary sources of a different nature. ((Ritchie, Doing Oral History, 19-20; Sharpless, “The History of Oral History”, p. 9-10)) Most notably, recollections that appeared in print were considered more objective and held in higher regard than oral sources.
While these debates circulated within academia for over a century, the formulation of oral history as a practice unto itself was already underway. Ritchie argues that it was through Joe Gould’s unfulfilled aspiration to produce “An Oral History of Our Time,” through which he hoped to record the scope of human experience, that the term was formally coined in the 1940s. ((Ritchie, “The Evolution of Oral History,” 3; Joseph Mitchell, “Profiles: Professor Sea Gull,” The New Yorker 12 Dec. 1942: 28-43. The New Yorker Digital Archives (accessed February 1, 2014) http://archives.newyorker.com/?i=1942-12-12#folio=028))
In other regards, the twentieth century buoyed the creation of a codified field through the development of technology and numerous initiatives to record personal recollections. Among them were interviews gathered for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project and similar undertakings that continued soon afterwards. Interviewers were dispatched across the country to record life histories and speak with former slaves, relying primarily on their own written notes to recreate the discussion. However, folk song initiatives did capture music from across the country during the New Deal, demonstrating that the technology was available although not utilized for these early interviews.
Cumbersome wire recorders were sent along with journalists to assess the recollections of American troops based abroad during World War II so that historians would have a clearer sense of what had transpired soon after battle. ((Ritchie, Doing Oral History, 21-22)) Immediately following the war, David Broder, a psychologist at the Illinois Institute of Technology, set off to Europe to document some of the first memories of Holocaust survivors, with mixed levels of sensitivity and success. ((David P. Boder, “The Displaced People of Europe: Preliminary Notes on a Psychological and Anthropological Study.” Illinois Tech Engineer, 1947: 18-21. Voices of the Holocaust (accessed February 1, 2014) http://voices.iit.edu/DisplacedPeopleofEurope_ILTechEng.pdf)) Soon afterwards, Allan Nevins, a historian at Columbia University in New York City, formed the first archive solely devoted to the creation and preservation of oral history interviews. Linda Shopes details how the Oral History Research Office (OHRO) was founded in 1948 to record the reminiscences of those who were essentially already chronicled in the history books: the wealthy and famous, the elite and powerful. The first oral history conducted was with George McAneny, who served as the Manhattan Borough President from 1910 to 1913. ((Linda, Shopes. “What Is Oral History?.” Making Sense of Oral History . History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web (accessed Feb 1, 2014) http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/oral/what.html))
Since the emphasis of historic study at the time largely focused upon politics and the policy makers, it is reasonable that this biographical approach and subject matter were the first to be pursued in the field. ((Thompson, The Voice of the Past, 3, 6)) But just as society has progressed substantially since the mid-twentieth century, so, too, has the field of oral history. These transitions were reflected in the focus of the countless new history centers and projects that developed worldwide in the subsequent decades, and the topics examined during the formation of both the Oral History Association in 1966 and International Oral History Association in 1996.
In the 1970s, interest transitioned from interviewing the “elite” members of society to the “nonelite” masses, with an emphasis on recording everything from daily lifestyle to the experience of historic events from this nontraditional perspective. ((Ritchie, “The Evolution of Oral History,” 5)) Debate within the academic community continued as to whether interviews were reliable forms of documentation, but oral historians like Alessandro Portelli argued in favor of embracing the “fallibility of memory,” as it became evident that the misremembrance of events by interview narrators can create historic insights in their own right. ((Thomas Lee Charlton, Lois E. Myers, Rebecca Sharpless, eds. Thinking about Oral History: Theories and Applications (Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2008), 149; Alessandro Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 1))
While wars waged on and social change persisted internationally throughout the twentieth century, the focus of oral history projects transformed, as did approaches to the interviews and intended uses of the material. Feminist theory and narrative medicine, among other schools of thought, have influenced interview methodology, and oral history has made its move into popular culture.
Consequently, oral history is no longer confined solely to the history books—and is not so begrudgingly included within them either. Interview excerpts appear on radio and within theater productions, in documentaries and for human rights work. Oral historians are now not solely generators of material for the historic record: they engage with and contextualize history through the narrators, but also allow the stories to speak for themselves.
The practice of oral history has also been greatly democratized. With the advent of digital technology and its ease of accessibility, students can easily record interviews with elders within their family and hometowns in order learn more about their heritage. Organizations can create documentation of their own history through peer-interviewing techniques. Interviewers who enter communities to conduct oral histories can in turn teach interviewing skills so that the groups may continue to preserve their own history.
Therefore, oral history in this modern age draws heavily from the lessons from the past. But just as by listening to someone’s life story you begin to see deeper into their perspective, the field has itself been humanized. Oral history brings the world together in ways in which only personal dialogues can: it bridges gaps and misperceptions, and provides a view into both the individual experience and collective story. Through this approach, we have the ability to draft a comprehensive historical record and plan for a more informed future based upon its insights.
1. What is oral history?
- An interview technique
- A multidisciplinary field
- Historical record through the spoken word
- Contextualization of the individual within history
- An exchange of perspectives
2. What sets oral history apart from other disciplines?
- The emphasis on open-ended rather than leading questions
- The combination of personal anecdote and historical reflection
- The authority maintained by the narrator over their own story
- The self-reflective and transparent nature of the interviewer
- The length of interviews, averaging between 1.5 to 2 hours per session
3. How can oral history be used?
- In the classroom to support the study of a historical time period
- In archives to deepen historical research
- In multimedia broadcast and publishing
- In exhibitions and public spaces
- In human right advocacy and activism
4. What do I need to do it?
- A digital audio or video recorder
- Intrigue and research
- Interested participants
- A quiet environment
- Time and patience
5. Why is oral history important?
- It preserves a component of history that might otherwise be forgotten
- It allows space for reflection on life experiences
- It teaches how to become a better listener
- It creates a humanizing exchange of perspectives
- It forges lasting bonds between people and generations
- For further perspective on the history of oral history, please view a public talk by Ron Grele, former director of the Columbia University Oral History Research Office.
- For an overview on established standards in the field, the Oral Historian Association’s “Principles for Oral History and Best Practices for Oral History” may be consulted.
- For exploration of all topics in modern-day oral history, Oral History in the Digital Age is particularly insightful.
- For an example of established an oral history initiative, please review the Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress.
Erica A. Fugger is a New York-based oral historian whose focus lies in examining the personal narratives underpinning revolutions and social movements. She currently serves as the office manager of the Columbia Center for Oral History Archives where she supports scholarly research, offers project consultations, and develops initiatives to expand access to the collections. Highlights of her previous work include conducting oral histories for the Brooklyn Navy Yard Center and teaching peer interviewing to the New York Public Library Retirees Association. This series of articles was written in conjunction with the development of an interview workshop with the input and expertise of oral historian Cameron Vanderscoff. His ongoing collaboration is immensely appreciated, as is the steady support he provides. If any questions arise in your own oral history projects, please do not hesitate to contact Erica via her professional website: www.ericafugger.com.