What is Oral History?

Oral History


To understand the meaning of oral history, a definition is in order.  So, what is history? I bet everyone reading this blog already knows exactly what history is from the teachings back in school. But I’ll tell you anyways. As taught at any level of education, history is an umbrella term that refers to past events told through memory discovery, collection, organization, presentation and interpretation of information about these events.   

Sources of General History 

History is all around us, in our families, communities, in living memories and in the experiences of older people. Everyone has a historic story to tell that is unique to them, some people were involved in momentous historic events like the fall of the Berlin Wall and others were involved in their own private historic moments that not everyone may be privy to.  Regardless of the historic event, we all have interesting experiences to share.  

Historical books and documents can’t give the full scale of everything that happened in the past. Most of the time it is the account of famous people present during the big events that occurred.  This sadly leaves out the ordinary person’s everyday events.  They neglect people on the margins of society, ethnic communities, disabled and unemployed people for example, hence their voices are hidden from history.  The proper count of historic events is thus lost in the eyes of only the famous people who give only their side of the story.   

Oral History 

Now with the definition of history out of the way, let’s delve into the heart of the matter, Oral History.  It is considered the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word and one of the most modern, initiated with tape recorders in the 1940s.  Oral history helps gather, preserve and interpret the voices and memories of people, communities and participants in past events making it easier to relate to the past historic events. In Doing Oral History, Donald Ritchie explains “Oral History collects memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews.”  It is now a field of study used in the humanities, social sciences and interdisciplinary fields such as cultural studies and gender studies.   

Importance of Oral History 

I will delve into this in my next blog, titled The Importance of Oral History but just briefly on why oral history is important is that it basically helps to recreate the texture of people’s lives. More so, it enables people to share their stories in their own words with their own voices through their own understanding and a first account of what happened and why.  The voices of narrators will endure to speak for them when they are gone.  

Oral history is the power of storytelling.  It brings to life historic events from the eye of the individual or individuals who lived through that particular historic moment.  It captures people’s experience and opinions that shape the way they make sense of their lives.  The collection of oral history by the researcher is all dependent on the area of study of the researcher and the techniques are solely based on the researcher.  

Without oral history many of us would probably never get to experience, through the eyes of the “storyteller” or even have an understanding of what was that shaped some of today’s important events, because as the famous statement goes, history repeat itself. It helps to put solid ground on the understanding of events that are occurring in today’s time.  With the current digital era, many opportunities have been offered to address critical issues and possibilities for the oral historian as a qualitative researcher. 

Oral History equal Oral Traditions? 

Now some of you might look at the term oral history and immediately think it is closely related to oral traditions and are interchangeable however they are not, they are fundamentally different.  While oral history involves collection, recording and study of historical information about individuals and families for the purpose of research, oral traditions or oral lore involves historic traditions passed down by word of mouth or example from one generation to another without written instruction, they may include acts such as birthday celebrations, not wearing white to a wedding unless you are the bride. These are traditions that were passed down.   

Growing popularity of Oral History 

Collecting oral histories has become increasingly popular over the last few years. With the digital age and audio technology allowing good quality recordings to be made, safely archived and easily backed up. Digital technology enhancement has made it possible to easily edit recordings so that you can pick out particularly relevant or interesting sections for radio broadcast, museum display, books, documentaries, in simple terms for bringing history to life for all interested historians and readers.   

Backlash of Oral History 

While I will delve into this topic a little bit more in one of my many upcoming blogs, let me just simply put an understanding to what backlash oral history has faced. Many sociologists and other social scientists still believe that quantitative research is the only way to be certain about evidence.  They believe that qualitative research, which includes oral history, does not hold the rigorous mandates to qualify as evidence for accurate research, in simpler terms they believe it’s baseless.  In fact, some of them have strived to get rid of the qualitative research methods. 

But the Greeks were not bothered by the process of qualitative analysis for research purposes. They believed that their witnesses and they themselves were human beings involved in the process of living and observing what was going on around and to them, even as they recorded memories and observations.  

Gabriela Rosenthal, a psychotherapist, tells us to reconstruct a life history, one must analyze the data on which it is based. This helps to find out how the narrator has approached the project and to discover whether the informant is orienting toward personal or the interview’s relevance’s 

Sometimes it may be necessary to interview several persons from similar backgrounds in order to yield corroborative testimony which can be done by properly planning the interview process. A properly thought-out and planned process will reduce the risk of readers ultimately questioning the validity of the evidence.  

But many scholars and one in particular by the name Valerie Raleigh Yow, who is an independent scholar in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and author of a number of informative oral history literature, argued that the awareness biases and preconceptions, the limitations of our experience and preferences, brings us closer to an understanding of how we influence our research and interpretation, whether it is qualitative or quantitative. Qualitative methodology has its own body of strict standards for procedure and evaluation. 


Oral history is very vast and intimidating, sometimes confused with ethnography. By using current technology and working in a transdisciplinary context, oral history may now be more readily accessible and available to a wider population, thus moving toward a critical social consciousness that may otherwise have been lost.

While this blog was designed for historians, other interested readers are welcome to read about it and find out more.  I hope you enjoyed this site’s first blog and look out for my next blog on the Importance of Oral History as well as How to Transcribe an Oral History Interview for tips on how you as an oral historian can accurately transcribe your audio recordings.

Or, if you want to outsource your recordings, contact us now to get your oral history interviews done on time and accurately.  

Until next time, stay safe and remember always be kind try to stay positive and learn to unwind.

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