What is Oral History?
I think History is commonly perceived to be almost a science, a list of concrete names and dates, unalterably carved into the slate megaliths of the past. The truth is, history is more of an art. The goal of the historian is to look at events much like an abstract artist would deconstruct a landscape before setting it onto canvas. Squint real hard at the historical events and some of your preconceived notions and prejudices begin to fade away from view and maybe for a fraction of a second you can see things through the eyes of those who lived with them.
Oral history is setting down someone's stories on paper for use as a historical source. To some, oral history is a subordinate form of history. After all, as we all know, the human memory is fallible (but don't tell my husband that I admitted that!). Things aren't always as black or white as we perceive them and sometimes we make snap judgments based on our own feelings or circumstances regardless of the grander context. Take, for example, the story of a wealthy girl who lived through the depression in the 1930s in a beautiful mansion on a bustling uptown street filled with other great mansions. Perhaps this girl never even realized there was a depression, surrounded by others of like means and with no interest in newspapers or radio broadcasts when she could be riding her bike to the beach. Does her ambivalence about the Great Depression make her memories of carefree childhood summers any less valuable or valid?
This question can be tricky, it relies upon us to make a judgement call regarding what is important and what isn't. Because the vast majority of people were struggling throughout the thirties, can we write off her experiences? What if she was remembering wrong, and the summers she recalled were actually from the early 1940s? Oral history requires we reexamine our motives for studying history and the methods we use to distinguish what is valuable in a source.
There has been a resurgence in the past several years with the establishment of organizations like the Association for Personal Historians and other consultants and even historical societies that are using oral history interviews to enrich our understanding of the past through extensive analysis of these personal stories, memories and experience.
When it comes down to it, we research history to understand more about the human experience and all of these stories are a part of this experience that connects us throughout time. They remind us that people are truly individual, but even so, we're all similar despite our circumstances.
Hi, I'm Tara! I am more than a huge fan of history, you might say I'm a little obsessed. I would spend a Friday night in with a glass of local wine and a reference book any night of the week. Learn more about me and my work here.