Oral history

Oral history is the collection and study of historical information about individuals, families, important events, or everyday life using audiotapes, videotapes, or transcriptions of planned interviews. These interviews are conducted with people who participated in or observed past events and whose memories and perceptions of these are to be preserved as an aural record for future generations. Oral history strives to obtain information from different perspectives and most of these cannot be found in written sources. Oral history also refers to information gathered in this manner and to a written work (published or unpublished) based on such data, often preserved in archives and large libraries. Knowledge presented by Oral History (OH) is unique in that it shares the tacit perspective, thoughts, opinions and understanding of the interviewee in its primary form.

In the United States, there are several organizations dedicated to doing oral history which are not affiliated with universities or specific locations. StoryCorps is one of the most well-known of these: following the model of the Federal Writers’ Project created as part of the Works Progress Administration, StoryCorps’ mission is to record the stories of Americans from all walks of life. On contrast to the scholarly tradition of oral history, StoryCorps subjects are interviewed by people they know. There are a number of StoryCorps initiatives that have targeted specific populations or problems, following in the tradition of using oral history as a method to amplify voices that might otherwise be marginalized.

During 1998 and 1999, 40 BBC local radio stations recorded personal oral histories from a broad cross-section of the population for The Century Speaks series. The result was 640 half-hour radio documentaries, broadcast in the final weeks of the millennium, and one of the largest single oral history collections in Europe, the Millennium Memory Bank (MMB). The interview based recordings are held by the British Library Sound Archive in the oral history collection.

In 2001, Post Bellum, a nonprofit organization, was established to "documents the memories of witnesses of the important historical phenomenons of the 20th century" within the Czech Republic and surrounding European countries. Post Bellum works in partnership with Czech Radio and Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes. Their oral history project Memory of Nation was created in 2008 and interviews are archived online for user access. As of January 2015, the project has more than 2100 published witness accounts in several languages, with more than 24,000 pictures.

Many state and local historical societies have oral history programs. Sinclair Kopp (2002) report on the Oregon Historical Society's program. It began in 1976 with the hiring of Charles Digregorio, who had studied at Columbia with Nevins. Thousands of sound recordings, reel-to-reel tapes, transcriptions, and radio broadcasts have made it one of the largest collections of oral history on the Pacific Coast. In addition to political figures and prominent businessmen, the Oregon Historical Society has done interviews with minorities, women, farmers, and other ordinary citizens, who have contributed extraordinary stories reflecting the state's cultural and social heritage. Hill (2004) encourages oral history projects in high school courses. She demonstrates a lesson plan that encourages the study of local community history through interviews. By studying grassroots activism and the lived experiences of its participants, her high school students came to appreciate how African Americans worked to end Jim Crow laws in the 1950s.

The rise of oral history is a new trend in historical studies in China that began in the late twentieth century. Some oral historians, stress the collection of eyewitness accounts of the words and deeds of important historical figures and what really happened during those important historical events, which is similar to common practice in the west, while the others focus more on important people and event, asking important figures to describe the decision making and details of important historical events. In December 2004, the Chinese Association of Oral History Studies was established. The establishment of this institution is thought to signal that the field of oral history studies in China has finally moved into a new phase of organized development.

Historians, folklorists, anthropologists, human geographers, sociologists, journalists, linguists, and many others employ some form of interviewing in their research. Although multi-disciplinary, oral historians have promoted common ethics and standards of practice, most importantly the attaining of the "informed consent" of those being interviewed. Usually this is achieved through a deed of gift, which also establishes copyright ownership that is critical for publication and archival preservation.

Oral history interviews were used to provide context and social meaning in the Overstone excavation project in Northumberland. Overstone consists of a row of four cottages. The excavation team, consisting of Jane Webster, Louise Tolson, Richard Carlton, and volunteers, found the discovered artifacts difficult to identify. The team first took the artifacts to an archaeology group, but the only person with knowledge about a found fragment recognized the fragment from a type of pot her mother had. This inspired the team to conduct group interviews volunteers who grew up in households using such objects. The team took their reference collection of artifacts to the interviews in order to trigger the memories of volunteers, revealing a “shared cultural identity.”

In Guatemalan literature, I, Rigoberta Menchu (1983), brings oral history into the written form through the testimonio genre. I, Rigoberta Menchu is compiled by Venezuelan anthropologist Burgos-Debray, based on a series of interviews she conducted with Menchu. The Menchu-controversy arose when historian David Stoll took issue with Menchu’s claim that “this is a story of all poor Guatemalans”. In Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans (1999), Stoll argues that the details in Menchu’s testimonio are inconsistent with his own fieldwork and interviews he conducted with other Mayas. According to Guatemalan novelist and critic Arturo Arias, this controversy highlights a tension in oral history. On one hand, it presents an opportunity to convert the subaltern subject into a “speaking subject”. On the other hand, it challenges the historical profession in certifying the “factuality of her mediated discourse” as “subaltern subjects are forced to use the discourse of the colonizer to express their subjectivity”.

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