What is Oral History?

Often the only way to find out about the past is to ask someone who knows about it. Oral history is the recording of memories of people’s unique life experiences. People can be much more interesting than documents—through oral history the past comes alive.

The recorded interview can be used as a primary source of information about a time, an event or a life. Oral histories can also challenge existing collective beliefs. Frequently they raise the status of the every-day experience as historical records usually rely on an official version of an event. Oral history creates a record or supplements existing ones.

The recording of oral history is a two-way process in which someone shares memories with an interviewer who has carefully planned an interview. Oral history preserves voices, accents and vocabularies of individuals interviewed. Oral histories have been used:

  • for the life histories of groups who may be poorly represented in written sources
  • to document the experiences of survivors of trauma
  • to trace the history of a local community
  • for family histories
  • to encourage children to treat people as living history books, at the same time increasing understanding between generations
  • for research purposes in tertiary education studies
  • in corporate and institutional histories
  • in museums to enliven displays
  • in publications to capture readers’ imaginations in newspaper and magazine journalism, radio, television and plays to promote authentic voices of the past.