The Importance of Oral History

Don’t let this title deceive you.  This post deals just as much with libraries and archives as it does history.

My Aunt Rosalie recently passed away.  She lived a long life.  She was born overseas and knew life under a monarch, a dictator, and many presidents.  During World War II, a rubber raincoat her father, who was in the United States, sent her as used to make shoes for her, her mother, and her sisters in war-torn Sicily.*  Unlike those in America, she faced life under war-torn skies, bombs falling from both sides depending who held the island.  She also lived with rationing so stick that all they had to east most days was pasta and she’d never eat it again after the war.  These facts all came from stories she told me, my cousins, and others in the family.  We remember some things quite well.  Others have faded over time.  We often asked her to write her life’s story down or at least allow someone to conduct an oral history interview.  She never would.  Now some parts of her story are lost to history.  We might be able to reconstruct some parts, but never as much as she could have.

"StoryCorps Interview" by Rochelle Hartman via Flickr Creative Commons.

“StoryCorps Interview” by Rochelle Hartman via Flickr Creative Commons.

That is an example of why oral history is important.  It serves as a way to preserve history.  I will admit, so would written letters, diaries, and memoirs, but oral histories have added elements.  The voice of the individual is also preserved.  That allows a researcher to learn a bit more about an individual.  For example, do they have an accent?  Do they speak with a southern twang?  Do they say toe-may-toe or ta-ma-toe?  These can provide clues about where someone was raised, thus leading a researcher to possibly locate other places to check for more information.  Oral history interviews, though guided by predetermined questions, allows for clarifications and additional questions to immediately add new information, something that could still get left out of written material (perhaps they hadn’t remembered something until a question prompted it!).

Oral histories also bring history alive in a way that not much else can, save for a video recording.  I can attest to that.  When I interned at my state’s historical society, I processed an oral history collection.  While I based most of the finding aid on information found in the transcripts (that’s easier and quicker than listening and taking notes), it didn’t stop me from listening to the recordings.  Hearing the person interviewed talk can be spellbinding.  You hear when they get excited about something.  Or if something saddens them.  It’s like listening to an old-time radio show.**  Hearing the emotions evoked as they remember lures a listener in.  The same occurred the time I sat in on an oral history interview, so it’s not just when listening to a recorded interview that the things I mention occur.

Now where do libraries and archives come into play with oral histories?  Well, first, historians are no the only people who conduct them.  Librarians and archivists have too.  So have researchers, family members, and students.  Second, these recordings are often housed in archives or libraries.  Archives take the time to also create transcripts and finding aids to aid researchers.  They also often have the means to migrate the content as formats change.  Not all libraries can do this–it depends on if they have the personnel and/or funds.  Third, oral history interviews are not planned out of the blue.   Unless on is interviewing a family member for prosperity, research usually preceded the interview (and it still may be done in the former case).  That can be done in libraries and/or archives.  The research gives the interview a focus, such as a specific event or theme.  For example, the collection I processed was oral histories of five crewmen of a World War II destroyer and the interview I sat in on dealt with small town life in a historic community and the community’s current preservation efforts.

Now, if you wish to learn how to conduct and possibly conduct an oral history interview, read on.  And I might add, teachers and professors, you may want to assign an oral history interview assignment to your high school and college students as part of their history curriculum.  It would be a good experience!  And for those of you at colleges, copies could even be housed in the university’s archives or special collections!

Resources for Conducting Oral History Interviews:

More resources about Oral Histories:

Places that offer tips and homes for Oral History Interviews:

Have you conducted an oral history interview?  If so, do you have any tips or resources to share?  Or another national or regional place to house oral histories?  If not, do you think you would consider conducting one?

*He came over to the United States first, in 1913, in order to make money to pay for the rest of the family’s crossing.  They were supposed to cross in 1936, but Mussolini canceled their visas and it wasn’t until 1948 that they made it stateside.  Her father did visit at least twice in the years between.

**Might I suggest listening to the old radio show My Favorite Husband?  It starred Lucille Ball and was a precursor and inspiration for I Love Lucy.  Many episodes have been added as bonus features on the DVD release of I Love Lucy.  It’s great fun to listen to!

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6 thoughts on “The Importance of Oral History

  1. A great subject to blog about. To make a long story short my wife and I had traveled to her father’s home town. While doing our research we had to visit the local library. When we asked for some papers and a local history book, the librarian asked a few questions. He then came out with a CD recording of my wife’s aunt. The aunt died about 10 years ago and the recording was made about 25 years ago. They made a copy for us. The recording is priceless as her aunt gives great detail on the early life of the family. We never knew about the recording until that day.

    • chmjr2, thanks for your kind words and sharing your wonderful story of discovering the oral history recording of your wife’s aunt! That was a wonderful and meaningful discovery!

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