A Short Introduction to Oral History: Episode One

By Eleonora Anedda

La série des Cathédrales de Rouen by Claude Monet

This is the first piece of a series on the many dimensions of oral history. Here we briefly introduce oral history as a methodology and we address critics’ concern over the reliability of oral history sources. In the next episodes of this series, we are going to talk about the history of this field and how it came to be what it is today; interviewing, ethics and best practices; transcribing; archiving and curating oral histories in digital archives; and lastly, IDCL’s lived religion approach and method for the Religions Texas Oral History Project.

The National Oral History Association (OHA) defines Oral History as “a method of gathering and preserving historical information through recorded interviews with participants in past events and ways of life.” Oral histories are primary sources. They contribute, alongside written sources, to the documentation of the past. Oral history, as a practice, includes everything from fieldwork, method, theory, and curation of the sources. Oral historians conduct interviews, transcribe and index the recordings, analyse the oral histories, archive and share them with their audience, usually, for educational purposes.

Historical Context

An oral history interview has its own distinguishing features — which we will discuss in more detail in another blog post from this series, for now, what you need to know is that the interviewer usually asks open-ended questions and lets the interviewee, or narrator, decide what they are comfortable sharing. But oral histories differ from simple interviews. Even though the final product is a recorded conversation, oral histories strongly emphasise historical research and context.

People are historical actors. You are a historical actor — meaning that your life can demonstrate the systems at play in your society and community. Because the same applies to narrators, oral historians ask questions about the narrator’s family origins, spirituality, education, career, and community involvement to allow the interviewee to voice their historical impact. For instance, when an African American narrator describes how they moved from the South to Harlem in the 1930s, their story can help us understand more about the Great Migration, its causes, and the Harlem Renaissance. This is important because life history interviews show the narrators as witnesses of historical events, and inform us on political, geographic and socio-economic factors that enlighten the historical context we are researching.

La série des Cathédrales de Rouen by Claude Monet

Reliability

The ancient origins of orally transmitted sources did not protect them from “falling into the disfavour” of the late nineteenth-century scientific community. Many historians discounted the value of oral histories. One of the biggest concerns was, in fact, the reliability of oral histories. “How do we know if the interviewee’s account is accurate?” “Is the narrator trustworthy?” “What if they’re not telling the truth?” Can we trust oral histories as primary sources? The answer is yes. Oral history is not about historical events but rather people’s experiences of historical events. When interviewing a Sicilian who witnessed the Allied invasion of the island in 1943, the oral historian conducting the interview won’t ask, “On what day did the troops landed in Ispica?” “Which troops landed on the South-Eastern part of the island? Where they Americans, British, or Canadian?” Oral historians are expected to conduct background research on the narrator and the historical events they are planning to discuss during the interview; therefore the historian will have already found the answers to these questions in written or secondary sources. Moreover, during an interview we are not testing the memory or historical knowledge of our narrator. On the other hand, we are looking to further our understanding of historical events by asking questions about personal experiences in relations to those events. “What worried you during the offensive military operations?” “How did you feel during the bombing?” In this sense oral histories add meaning to history and offer us information that is not available in written primary sources.

Making History

Today, we launch oral history projects to preserve the memories of people and communities that have been shadowed by the victors of history. We amplify the stories of women, people of colour, religious minorities, the LGBT community, and people with disabilities. We document community histories, family histories, human rights violations, natural disasters, wars, terrorist attacks, and more. Archival written sources tend to reflect the dominant voices of the society in which they are created. If society favours the voices of men over women’s, Christians over any other religious group, whites over people of color, the archive will likely mirror these trends. Oral history makes an intervention into these patterns of dominance and seeks to uplift voices that would otherwise remain unheard. Conducting oral histories means actively creating archival content. In other words, it means doing history.

Resources:

The National Oral History Association (OHA)

Thomas L. Charlton, Lois E. Myers, and Rebecca Sharpless, eds., History of Oral History: Foundations and Methodology (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).The State of Us

Eleonora Anedda, Oral History Fellow

Eleonora is a recent graduate from the Oral History MA at Columbia University, and came to this field from a Gender and Sexuality Studies background. She was born and raised in Sardinia, Italy and earned her BA in Humanities from the Università deli Studi di Cagliari. She is very excited to be working as an oral historian for IDCL and interviewing narrators for the Religions Texas Oral History Project. When she isn’t glued to her computer she enjoys taking care of her twelve orchids, eating tagliatelle, swimming, and going for long walks with her dog.

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