oral history definition | what is oral history?


In this post we will present an oral history definition and answer the question what is oral history.

By Yolanda Silva, author of the online course Oral History.

oral history definition

Cover image: Griots of Sambala, king of Medina (fulas, Mali), 1890.

Griots and Griottes (keepers of oral tradition in Western Africa).

oral history definition | a discipline within history

According to historian Paul Thompson, Oral History was the first kind of History.

For centuries oral sources were used as the only way to convey the history of the ancestors. In the 5th century BC, the Greek historian Thucydides transposed to the written word the Peloponnesian War reports, representing one of the first and most notable examples of the importance of recording the traditions and stories passed on from generation to generation.

what is oral historyHowever, the dissemination of the printed word will soon obscure the spoken word.

Historiographical practices reduced the importance of oral sources, which also resulted in reducing the significance of oral testimonies. Some authors throughout history will try to express their interest in oral tradition, studying local beliefs and customs that result in literary productions such as Robert Burns did in the 18th century: he collected a number of poems and songs thus preserving a good part of the Scottish folk.

By the mid-twentieth century, historians and archivists start launching the first initiatives in some universities and historical societies, essentially bases on researching and collecting local testimonies and folklore that, in many cases, included aspects of the development of language itself.

Thus emerges a new discipline within History.

The first oral history definition is a discipline within history.

oral history definition | the process of recording memories

There are many definitions for Oral History, just as there are many angles that define Heritage and Cultural Heritage.

Oral history relates to the stories and personal memories told by certain individuals about their past and the formal process of collecting and analysing this information by historians.

In order to get a more concrete and comprehensive picture of the Past, Oral History uses a process of registration and preservation of information from a primary source, making it available to the public.

The methodology of Oral History is based primarily on the interview, a thought-out and structured process, which aims to fill certain gaps that records and ‘official’ documents do not.

Post: How to conduct an oral history interview ?

We speak of the memory of an anonymous subject, as well as that of a community.

Oral History seeks to obtain the stories of all, the oral testimonies of those who actually lived History.

These stories and memories help us to explain our identity and our place in the world, as it provides us with information about how each of us remembers the Past and experiences the Present. And it is on this premise that since the mid-twentieth century, Oral History has been growing in importance.

oral history definition | an historical source

Therefore, Oral History, with all its ramifications, is a discipline with a methodology similar to other branches of historical analysis: it requires of the historian prior preparation in the same way as any other area of study, and a careful analysis of data, in order to properly select and convert it (or not) into an oral source – it will be a primary source, similar to a newspaper article or a registry.

Evidently, and as we are depending on someone’s memories, we have a time limit, determined by the nature of man. We are dependent on the lifetime of the people who share their testimonies, and therefore the potential of Oral History is seen from the point of view of the Present time.

On the other hand, it is fascinating what can be achieved through an interview: the chance to experience what another lived. Thus, Oral History introduces a new type of primary source – the interview – which, although having its limits, helps us to understand more extensively the mentalities and thus also the path of Man throughout History.

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Yolanda Silva

Graduated in Art History (Faculdade de Letras of the University of Porto). Her career led her to work at the Municipal Historical Archive of Porto and the Museum of ISEP, with inventory and conservation of Photographic collections. She wandered around the world of antiquaries and tourism, until becoming a professional trainer/tutor, dedicating herself to the areas of Art History, Iconography and Conservation of Photography. She currently works at the Department of Culture of Porto, within the scope of Heritage. Has several written works / published in the areas of Art History, Iconography and Conservation.

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