What is oral history?

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

Beth Robertson, The Oral History Handbook, 2000

Oral tradition, stories and memories have been passed down from generation to generation for centuries. However the modern definition of oral history refers to tape recorded interviews. The term was coined in the 1940s by Columbia University historian Allan Nevins.

  • Oral history interviews are recorded on tape in question and answer format.
  • A well-prepared interviewer has knowledge of the subject to be discussed gained through background research.
  • The person interviewed shares memories from personal participation or knowledge of the subject.
  • Potential subjects for oral history interviews are boundless, however most have historical interest and value.
  • Practitioners of oral history are encouraged to make the results of their interviews available to other researchers.

Why use oral history?

Oral history preserves the past in a unique way. Although initially used to record the memories of influential people, it soon became a technique for recording the experiences of ordinary people, particularly those whose voices have been ignored or silenced.

Oral history recordings not only preserve memories but also voices. Every interviewee shares stories in their own words. The tone, the inflections and the emotions in each voice are captured, adding depth and meaning to their words.

How can oral history be used?

The OHAA encourages oral historians to deposit their tapes into a state, local or national repository where they can be made available to other researchers.

There are many ways in which oral history can be used. Some are:

  • Quotations and information from interviews are used in publications – books, theses, reports, essays, magazine articles and on websites.
  • Excerpts from interviews, in written or sound format can be used in exhibitions and museum displays.
  • Excerpts from recordings are broadcast on radio and television or can be used as sound bytes on websites.
  • Oral history excerpts can be used as part of audio walking tours or as dialogue in plays.