Oral history is an method of collecting personal testimony. It is a way of documenting life stories and experiences of interviewees from all walks of life who have something of interest to say about themselves, their lives or events they may have witnessed.
When it comes to documenting oral history it requires advanced preparation, we need to understand the complexity of interview relationships, the questioning and listening skills and, as important, the ability to understand oral evidence and uses in a wide variety of settings.
Oral history is not folklore, but it is the tradition of beliefs, customs and stories of the community passed through the generations by word-of-mouth. Until the arrival of the oral historian the transmission of oral history was captured by the pen. However, with the arrival of recording devices we can now document history using personal testimony and first-hand information.
Oral history can be best described as a way of revealing a hidden history; it documents history as seen from “below” meaning from the ordinary individual, as opposed to from above or, as is normally the case, from the people who make history and not from the people who witnesses at a common level. From this point of view oral history has become a valuable resource in many communities that use it to record the memories of their senior members. These recordings can be archived for future reference, and this gives a new dimension to the way we understand history. It is furthermore a democratisation of history as it allows Us, due to new technologies, to record the memoirs of all people. It empowers to historian and the ordinary person in making new information in relation to historical events available to a wider audience. But perhaps one of its greatest uses is that it now balances documentary sources.
When we look at documentary sources such as books, documents, newspapers and periodicals, we must ask, what are they, how useful are they and are they 100% reliable. Are they biased or unbiased or are they just one person’s point of view? When it comes to oral history, we can use it to back up such documentation and the recordings become a second resource. Documents can be partisan or biased, but, from a positive point of view they can also be contemporaneous.
Personal testimony is very unique. As we listen to the person speak, we get an accurate account of their perception of their own lives and the events therein. However, we must also take into consideration such memories are normally retrospective and as such, because of the passing of time, they may be somewhat colored or the speaker may have issues of memory.
Personal narratives differ in the way they are written or spoken. In an interview situation (an exchange) the interviewee is relying totally on their own memory of a given situation. However, from recordings we can also tell certain things from the atmosphere created, the accent, the information, the stories offered. There would also tell us something about the generational bridges which have been crossed.
It is important to remember that an interview is not an interrogation, and the interviewer should always have brief notes which he or she can follow throughout the course of the interview. The interview itself should be conversational, not just a conversation and the interviewee should never be made to feel that he or she is an outsider, but an insider.
Oral history began its life in the early 1940s in the USA. With the publication of the book; Gateway to History (1938) came the first real oral history textbook documenting what has been described as the stories of; “living Americans who have led significant lives’. United States Federal Writers Project in the 1930s and 1940s, also helped with the advancement of the discipline. Recorded interviews with victims of the Great Depression have given great depth to our understanding of history in this era. By the 1960s with issues such as Black rights and women’s rights oral historians have documented substantial information through the recording of living witnesses.
In Britain, Organizations Such As the British Library Sound Archive 1936, School Of Scottish Studies 1950s, Labour and Local History Late 1960s, Oral History Society 1973, Oral History Journal (collection, reservation and use of recorded memories of the past.) Have all contributed to the advancement of the discipline. Publications such as; Evans, Ask The Fellow Who Cut The Hay (1975), Paul Thompson, The Voice Of The Past (1978) And Alastair Thompson, Anzac Memories (1994), Moving Stories (2010) are all now deemed standard textbooks in Oral History.
In Ireland, Musgrave, Memoirs of the Different Rebellions (1802), Luke Cullen 1830s, Irish Folklore Commission 1937-38 (documenting such issues as patriotism, ruralism, and famine) are all substantial works.
Also in Ireland there are a number of organisations now focused on Oral History recording, compiling and archiving. These include; Irish Folklore Department Archive UCD, Irish Oral History Archive, Cork Northside Project MIC Oral History Archive, Boston College (Dublin) GAA Oral History, Oral History Network of Ireland and MIC Oral History Centre.