Why Oral Histories Matter

Margot Note

Margot Note

June 26, 2023

An oral history is a recorded audio or video interview in question-and-answer format. 

An oral history project is a series of oral history interviews focused on documenting a topic, theme, era, place, organization, event, or group of people.

Oral histories capture the unique stories and first-hand experiences of individuals, families, and communities that are not recorded as paper documents and would otherwise be lost. It is a way to document the stories of everyday people so that their history is preserved.

Archivists play a crucial role in preserving and providing access to the historical record. One of the most effective ways of achieving this is by collecting oral histories. Oral history interviews provide unique insights into the past and can help to fill gaps in the historical record, particularly in the experiences and perspectives of marginalized communities. There are several compelling reasons why archivists should conduct oral history interviews. 

Capturing Untold Stories

Oral history interviews allow archivists to capture the stories and perspectives of individuals whose voices are often missing from the historical record. These may include people from marginalized communities whose experiences are not reflected in official documents or archives. By recording and preserving their stories, archivists can help to ensure that these individuals and their experiences are not forgotten.

Providing Context

Oral history interviews can provide valuable context for archival materials, such as photographs, letters, and other documents. By providing first-hand accounts of events and experiences, oral histories can help shed light on these materials’ meaning and significance. This action can be especially important when interpreting documents from periods or cultures unfamiliar to contemporary researchers.

Enhancing Accessibility

Oral histories can help to make archival materials more accessible to a wider audience. By providing personal accounts of historical events and experiences, oral histories can make the past feel more immediate and relevant to contemporary audiences. As a result, oral histories can help engage a broader range of people in studying history and encourage greater use of archival materials.

Preserving Memory

Oral histories can help to preserve the memory of events and experiences that might otherwise be lost. For example, oral histories of survivors of natural disasters, wars, or other traumatic events can provide valuable insights into the impact of these events on individuals and communities. By recording and preserving these stories, archivists can help to ensure that the memory of these events is not lost over time.

Building Community

Oral history interviews can also help to build community by providing a means of documenting and celebrating shared experiences. For example, archivists might conduct oral histories of individuals involved in local community organizations or events. These interviews can help to create a sense of shared history and identity within the community.

Planning for Success

Archivists must have a clear plan and methodology for successful oral history interviews. They identify potential interviewees, develop interview questions, and prepare release forms. Archivists may also need to invest in appropriate recording equipment, software, and training in interviewing techniques.

It is also essential for archivists to consider ethical considerations when conducting oral history interviews. For example, they need to obtain informed consent from interviewees, ensure confidentiality, and be sensitive to trauma, cultural differences, and power dynamics.

Oral history interviews are a powerful tool for archivists to capture and preserve the historical record. By recording and preserving the stories of individuals, archivists can help to fill gaps in the historical record and provide valuable context for archival materials. Oral histories can also help to make archival materials more accessible to a broader audience, preserve memory, and build community. However, conducting successful oral history interviews requires careful planning, methodology, and ethical considerations. Archivists who invest in oral history interviews can play a critical role in preserving the past and ensuring it is accessible to future generations.

Margot Note

Margot Note

Margot Note, archivist, consultant, and Lucidea Press author is a regular blogger, and popular webinar presenter for Lucidea, provider of ArchivEra, archival collections management software for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities. Read more of Margot’s posts here.

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