What is oral history?

Oral history is the collection and recording of personal memoirs as historical documentation. It documents forms of discourse normally not documented and it emphasizes the significance of human experience.

Oral history is the best method to use to get an idea not only of what happened, but what past times meant to people and how it felt to be a part of those times.

Oral history involves eyewitness accounts and reminiscences about events and experiences which occurred during the lifetime of the person being interviewed. When we ask people to talk about the past, we are asking them to tell us stories from memory. When they do, they often select and emphasize certain features while minimizing others. People do this to personalize their stories for the listener, to make the story relevant to today, or to make sense of their experiences.

In addition to providing an added dimension to historical research, an oral history project can:

  • foster appreciation for little-known or rapidly vanishing ways of life;
  • verify the historicity of events which cannot be determined by traditional methods of historical research;
  • correct stereotypical images of lifeways and people; and
  • recover and preserve important aspects of a human experience that would otherwise go undocumented.

Collecting, preserving, and sharing oral histories not only transmits knowledge from one generationto the next, it enhances our understanding of the past by illuminating personal experience.

The real record of history is found in the lives of ordinary people who lived it.