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Oral History

Oral History

The Oral History Association defines Oral history as "a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events. Oral history is both the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word, and one of the most modern, initiated with tape recorders in the 1940s and now using 21st-century digital technologies."

In Doing Oral History, Donald Ritchie explains, “Oral History collects memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews.  An oral history interview generally consists of a well-prepared interviewer questioning an interviewee and recording their exchange in audio or video format.  Recordings of the interview are transcribed, summarized, or indexed and then placed in a library or archives. These interviews may be used for research or excerpted in a publication, radio or video documentary, museum exhibition, dramatization or other form of public presentation. Recordings, transcripts, catalogs, photographs and related documentary materials can also be posted on the Internet.  Oral history does not include random taping, such as President Richard Nixon’s surreptitious recording of his White House conversations, nor does it refer to recorded speeches, wiretapping, personal diaries on tape, or other sound recordings that lack the dialogue between interviewer and interviewee.”

Oral Histories are also important tools for documenting and challenging social justice issues. Voice of witness, a non-profit organization, focuses on the power of Oral Histories as tools to amplify the voices of minorities. 

As described by Voice of Witness in Say it Forward: A guide to social justice storytelling, Oral History is an accessible way for human beings to exchange social, cultural, and historical knowledge with each other. It's a traditional art form that retained its appeal and power to connect us across continents and cultures, even in an age when digital communication seems to transform how we talk to each other. By its nature, oral history can be thoroughly subversive because it makes space for stories that otherwise might not be heard. It creates a platform for individuals and communities that don't feel connected to more dominant, established narratives to speak up and share their own personal experiences. The oral history process can liberate people to count themselves as a part of history, and not separate from it, especially individuals and communities that have been marginalized or silenced.

Oral History seeks to grab the mic from the constantly amplified voices of the powerful and privileged and direct it toward ordinary people with stories that deserve hearing. This impulse is an oral historian's response to the inequity that results from ignoring or silencing the mosaic of stories that make up any historical event, time period, or social issue.



Oral History Association. (2022, April 28). OHA Principles and Best Practices.

Mayotte, C., & Kiefer, C. (Eds.). (2018). Say it forward: a guide to social justice storytelling. Haymarket Books.