Oral history is a method of historical documentation, using interviews with living survivors of the time being investigated.
Contemporary oral history involves recording or transcribing eyewitness accounts of historical events. Some anthropologists started collecting recordings (at first especially of Native American folklore) on phonograph cylinders in the late 19th century. In the 1930s the Works Progress Administration (WPA) sent out interviewers to collect accounts from various groups, including surviving witnesses of the American Civil War, Slavery, and other major historical events. The Library of Congress also began recording traditional American music and folklore onto acetate discs. With the development of audio tape recordings after World War II, the task of oral historians became easier.
In 1942 the New Yorker published a profile of Joseph Gould, who claimed to be collecting “An Oral History of Our Time.” Although Gould never produced this work, the magazine story about him popularized the term oral history. In 1948 Alan Nevins, a Columbia University historian, established the Columbia Oral History Research Office, with a mission of recording, transcribing, and preserving oral history interviews. In 1967 American oral historians founded the Oral History Association, and in 1969 British oral historians founded the Oral History Society. There are now numerous national organizations and an International Oral History Association, which hold workshops and conferences and publish newsletters and journals devoted to oral history theory and practices.
Historians, folklorists, anthropologists, sociologists, journalists, 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 historians generally prefer to ask open-ended questions and avoid leading questions that encourage people to say what they think the interviewer wants them to say. Some interviews are “life reviews,” conducted with those at the end of their careers, others are focused on a specific period in their lives, such as war veterans, or specific events, such as those with survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
The first oral history archives focused on interviews with prominent politicians, diplomats, military officers, and business leaders. By the 1960s and ‘70s, interviewing began being employed more often when historians investigate history from below. Whatever the field or focus of a project, oral historians attempt to record the memories of many different people when researching a given event. Interviewing a single person provides a single perspective. Individuals may misremember events or distort their account for personal reasons. By interviewing widely, oral historians seek points of agreement among many different sources, and also record the complexity of the issues. The nature of memory–both individual and community–is as much a part of the practice of oral as are the stories collected.
- Milman Parry
- Albert Lord
- Eric A. Havelock
- Marshall McLuhan
- Walter J. Ong
- Wendy Wickwire
- Ronald Grele
- Ronald J. Grele, et al. Envelopes of Sound: The Art of Oral History Praeger Publishers, 1991 online edition
- James Hoopes; Oral History: An Introduction for Students U of North Carolina Press, 1979. online edition
- Ritchie, Donald A. (2003). Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide. Oxford University Press.
-  International Oral History Association
- Center for Studies in Oral Tradition
- American Life Histories WPA Writers' Project 1936–1940 at Library of Congress (US)
- Oral History Association of Australia
-  Oral History Association (US)
- Oral History Society (GB)
- In the First Person A free index of more than 2,500 collections of oral history in English from around the world.
- Oral History in the Teaching of U.S. History
-  Oral history collections and activities, including National Life Stories, at the British Library
- Food Stories — Listen to food related oral history recordings from the British Library Sound Archive
- Oral history collection of combat veterans
- Immigrants in Black & White: A Review of “Communities Without Borders” , The Indypendent, Susan Chenelle
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