In this article we will look at what is oral history and the importance of the historical interview for the preservation of oral sources.
Oral Tradition mural in Evolution of the Book series, by John W. Alexander. Library of Congress – Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington D.C. (USA).
What is oral history – The first kind of History
What is oral 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 Ancient Greece
In the 5th century BC, the Greek historian Thucydides transposed to the written word the Peloponnesian War reports.
This represents one of the first and most notable examples of the importance of recording the traditions and stories passed on from generation to generation.
However, 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.
Robert Burns and the preservation of Scotish Folk
Some authors throughout history will try to express their interest in oral tradition, studying local beliefs and customs that result in literary productions.
Like Robert Burns did in the 18thcentury: he collected a number of poems and songs thus preserving a good part of the Scottish folk.
The first research initiatives
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.
What is Oral History
Next we will answer the question: Is everything we collect oral history?
And we will address the importance of the interview, the role of the historian, and the major phases of an oral history project.
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Is everything we collect Oral History?
Oral History must be assessed according to its strengths and weaknesses.
Basically, each interview is just a picture of a particular time or event and that is being shared based on the individual memory of a person.
This person is subject to various influences which, in turn, condition his/her view of events in the account.
When we think about what is oral history let us not forget that there are no two people in the world who will remember the same episode the same way.
What is Oral histoy – The importance of the interview
Even people who lived a certain historical moment together will have different visions and memories, based on their personal interests, the attention with which they were to this or that detail, and other details that make up their very own personalities.
In West Africa, tradition is maintained by the Griots, the keepers of stories.
In this image, we can see Tom Hale interviewing the griot Ayouba Tessa (1981, photograph by Thomas A. Hale).
It is also up to the historian to check if he/she is giving voice to the right people for his/her project.
The History that is written in the books is one that was written by historians and not by ordinary people – the anonymous, the excluded.
What is oral history – The historian’s role
So the historian must, before the contacts and sources collected, check if those contacts and sources are of interest because he/she may be excluding an important element to the project.
The collection of oral history information takes place through interviews.
And it is essential that the interviewer is prepared for this moment because the person being interviewed is in itself a historical source.
What is Oral History – The project
An oral history project must be well structured.
It should include the phases of:
– Preparation / research.
– Careful preparation of the interview.
– Collection of information.
– Organization and archiving of information.
– Availability and dissemination of the collected data.