What Is Oral History?

What is Oral History?

While textbooks provide learners with concise overviews of historical topics, oral history interviews provide insights into the experiences of ordinary individuals who lived through historical events. As Linda Shope writes, “Oral history might be understood as a self-conscious, disciplined conversation between two people about some aspect of the past considered by them to be of historical significance and intentionally recorded for the record. Although the conversation takes the form of an interview, in which one person--the interviewer--asks questions of another person--variously referred to as the interviewee or narrator--oral history is, at its heart, a dialogue.” 

Oral histories are valuable tools for providing insights into how ordinary people experienced the past and understanding the attitudes and perceptions that shaped people's lives.  Sometimes narrators (interviewees) may get a date or fact wrong, but they still provide a glimpse into the spirit of a time and place.  The first-hand accounts are especially valuable when we might be missing a perspective.  

Use these questions as you listen to one or more of the oral history interviews in this collection to critically analyze the oral histories as primary sources.

1. In what ways is the narrator and the account reliable? Are there particular kinds of insights that this narrator can offer?

  • What is the narrator's relationship to the events under discussion?
  • Does the narrator have a unique perspective or reason for presenting a particular version of events?
  • How does the interview compare to others on the same subject and with related documentary evidence?

2. Who is speaking?

  • In what ways might social factors (gender, race, age, religion, class, ability, occupation) shape what this person includes? 

3. Who is the interviewer?

  • Consider the social identity of the people doing the interviews, in this case students and historians (some of whom are related to the interviewees).
  • How might the interviewer’s relationship affect the questions and content?

4. What does the interview say? 

  • What is the topic or theme of the oral history?
  • What stories are told?
  • Do the stories reflect popular understandings or offer a different lens?
  • Are there silences (events or issues not addressed or questions reframed)? What insights do these moments provide?
  • What tone does/do the speaker/speakers have? How does the tone affect the feeling or mood of the oral history?
  • What did you learn from this oral history? What new information supports or sheds light on your prior knowledge about this topic?

5. Why are they talking?

  • In other words, what do you think made the person want to participate in an interview?

6. What are the circumstances of the interview?

  • How might location, interview length, and other people's presence affect the content?
  • Who helped make this oral history? Is it part of a collection, a government project, or a family genealogy?

7. What questions would you ask if you could follow up with the narrator? What sources might you consult to learn more?

(Questions are adapted from Linda Shopes, "Making Sense of Oral History," History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/oral/, February 2002.)