What is Oral History?
“Oral History,” the British oral historian Paul Thompson said, “is a history built around people. It thrusts life into history itself and widens its scope. It allows heroes not just from the leaders, but also from the unknown majority of the people. It encourages teachers and students to become fellow-workers. It brings history into, and out of, the community. It helps the less privileged […] towards dignity and self-confidence. It makes for contact – and hence understanding – between social classes, and between generations. […] In short it makes for fuller human beings.”
Oral history is a method of historical and social scientific inquiry and analysis that includes life histories, storytelling, narratives, and qualitative research. Most commonly, interviewers sit down together with narrators to help them tell, record, and archive their life stories or their memories of a specific event, person, or phase in their life.
The practice of oral history is universal: we all engage in oral history practices in our everyday lives, in telling our stories or listening to others. At every step, oral history is grounded in local knowledge and is connected to global experiences. As a method of exploring the past, oral history builds people’s capacity to appreciate the complexities of history, to critically evaluate the role of history in society, and, perhaps most importantly, to participate in the making of history. Oral history has become a powerful tool for Indigenous peoples, women, migrants, working people, minorities, communities, organizations, and other groups to find out about their own past, to tell their stories, and to “write” themselves (back) into history.
As a result, oral history has emerged as a movement to democratize history: to make history more accessible to a wider public, to include a greater diversity of people in the histories that are written and told, and to encourage more people to participate in the practice of history. The full value of oral history as an instrument for individual and community empowerment can be realized through teaching and training in the practice, and in interpretation and analysis of the meanings of stories. Such training increases the quality of oral history and its relevance to everyday life, qualitative research practices, and public policy.