Sunday 20 March 2016

What is Oral History?

Firstly, I must apologise for the tardiness of my post this month.  We have moved house recently and unfortunately have just been reconnected to the internet.  Amazing how we come to rely on that constant connection with the outside digital world.  

Continuing on from my last blog "Family Oral History Project - A Kick in the Butt, today's post looks at "What is Oral History?"

Our culture, traditions and history have been passed down through generation after generation by the spoken word or "oral history".  The expression "oral history" covers a wide span of information and formal story collecting, for example: stories carried down through family generations, history of cultural groups that is learned by culturally appointed "story tellers", projects designed by oral historians to enable us to have an understanding of significant people within our community, cultural groups and the stories of everyday people and their experiences.

The evolution of oral history has seen a significant acceleration over the past 70 years and is now recognised by most, as an integral part of recording and collecting the history and stories of our past. The last couple of decades have seen many changes.  These include: innovative improvements in recording technology and legislative changes that have been initiated as a result of deeper consideration of the ethical issues and accountability of the interviewer and the rights of the person being interviewed. 

Put simply, "oral history" is the formal collection of unique personal memories and stories through the recording of a conversation between two people.  These stories are then preserved for current and future generations.  Originally formal oral history recording was used to obtain an insight from influential people, such as politicians, prominent community leaders and famous artist.  However, it is now recognised that we can learn and gain a clear understanding about past historical events and periods from ordinary people as well.  Their stories add colour, and a realistic and more in depth understanding of past times.

Traditional researchers questioned the value of oral history and the reliability of memor. However we can now see an evolution in their approach to research with a recognition that oral history gives voice to the status and history of the common people and brings history to the community.  It provides an understanding and awareness between generations and social classes.  In short, it provides a more descriptive and vivid picture of those who went before us.  Oral history supplements traditional historical research, by widening and opening up leads to new historical information and understanding.

Recording of oral history is a two-way process, between the person/persons being interviewed and the interviewer.  The "recorded session" will provide the interviewer/researcher with an insight into that person or group's past experiences and how they remember them in the present.  In in order for this to be a valuable exercise careful planning and consideration must be taken.

It is important to note that two people will have different recollections about past events, and that all these memories are a valid and integral part of piecing together the history of an event. It should also be noted that over time a person's recollections or "memories" evolve as they mature and that their life experiences give different meaning and understanding of past events.   

It is with this exploration and a better understanding of "oral history" I move on to the next stage of preparing for the interview. Stay posted for the next installment. 


  1. Diane - all the best for your interview. They are not easy to do but soooo important. I enjoyed one of the talks given at the conference In Time and Place in Brisbane last year. Janis Wilton spoke about the importance of being able to move on from "rehearsed" memories when conducting interviews. She also talked about the importance of capturing the senses of the time particularly colour (black and white photos tell us only so much- what colour was the house painted etc). When I recorded an oral interview with my father he spoke with great fondness of the smell of particular buildings e.g. the QVB in Sydney. I for one will never forget and miss the sound of the old wooden escalators in David Jones Elizabeth Street.

  2. Hi Alex, funny you should mention Janis. I have just started the Post Grad Diploma in Local, Family and Applied History at Armidale, and Janis is my supervisor for the unit I am doing on Oral History! It is a fascinating area of research, with so many different levels.

  3. Coincidences all round.. Your article reminded me of Janis Wilton's presentation at the Time and Place conference also... I loved it. I would love to do one of her courses also, so many have recommended them.


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