Questions and Thoughts on Oral History and Tradition

This semester I am studying Oral History and will be doing an hour long interview. I thought I would post these questions. I had a lot more but I think these particular ones cover the basics of what Oral History is, oral tradition and how it is used, and how these forms of history can be beneficial. I need to decide on a topic for my class and I am thinking of interviewing a Catholic nun... After reading this post, does anyone else have any suggestions that they would be interested in? I was very fascinated with some of the differences and information I learned. Hope you find something interesting and new in this post as well. :)

1. What does the study of History teach us?: The study of history can teach us how to look through the eyes of another human being and what life and culture were like for them. History fores us to look at the world and life differently than how we live it- even when studying the history of someone who lives next door or in the same family. We can learn why people did they things that they did...sometimes through journals and letters where we can 'see' what they were thinking and what thinking went into those decisions and how they changed the life of everyone involved. This study can teach us to become more introspective about ourselves and how we make decisions and to question why we do what we do in our lives. The study of history also teaches us about basic human traits and humanity itself. We are forced to face our fears, prejudice and other ways of thinking when studying history and we are also forced to think about our role in the history that is being made today that we call our life. It can also teach us how to live in our contemporary society in an intelligent and informed matter. Being able to understand or at least show tolerance to the actions of ourselves and those around us keeps life more interesting, safer, useful... and beautiful!

2. What is oral history?:
Oral History is almost the most personal of all ways to collect historical facts and research. Oral history is the research, preparation and collecting of facts, observations, recollections, etc... of knowledge from another human being. Oral history can not be gotten by reading a dusty ledger or sitting quietly in a dark library. Oral history tests you as a historian and as a human. To collect information, you must be personable, able to engage with others, able to listen and not steer the conversation in different directions or toward your own biases. You must be able to act sympathetic-even when you personally are not- and help people to share honestly what is in their memories and also be able to assess the information and the individual sharing it. Oral history is a little different than oral tradition and oral history can be more useful for the society that is generally mostly literate. One reason for this is that the people in these societies are less likely to use their memories to hold 'things' long term... as they could be written down or recorded. The focus of this class will be on the “collecting of an individuals spoken memories of his life, of people he has known, and events he has witnesses or participated in”.

3. What are the common types of historical sources?:
The most common sources for historical information can be easily classified into groups. The grouping of written documents can include, but are not limited to- journals or diaries, books or other published works such as newspapers, letters, and governmental records such as census forms, applications, and tax records. Other examples can be land or property deeds, ledgers and/or records kept by groups such as churches, non profits, small informal groups, etc... Another group would be 'visual documents' and would include pictures, portraits,and prints that-while they may contain no writing- can tell us a lot about the subjects and environment/culture at the time they were created. The grouping of physical documents can encompass almost anything that hasn't already been covered...such as coins, clothing, tools, furniture, buildings, art, music, etc...

4. What is oral tradition? What role does it play in literate and illiterate societies?: Oral tradition is a story, tradition or practice that is shared orally or through speech- usually handed down from generation to generation. Oral tradition is usually eventually written down, but can tell us so much about the society and the people who originated them and allows history to be kept and shared by groups who do or did not have writing. It was a good way to keep valuable information for others in your group and would allow the literate and the illiterate alike to share the information. One downside of written documents is that they are only as useful as the person attempting to read them. If there is no one who can read the document... then the information is just as unavailable and gone as if we didn't have the documentation in the first place. (Sometimes you can get lucky and discover how to read the documents so they shouldn't be discarded- the Rosetta Stone is an example.) Oral tradition can cover such 'documents' as speeches, songs, interviews, and conversations. Oral history, especially if shared by a quite charismatic speaker, can evoke emotions, memories and actions that the written words is hard pressed to match. And again, the spoken word is available to all who know the language- whereas written documents have an added impediment. Spoken word, as shared with more people and preserved by memory is more accessible to everyone -anyone in hearing distance. Other documents can easily be destroyed- a book can be burned, etc... But to destroy a memory, you must destroy all who have the memory before they can spread it... and like destroying a trail a gossip, it is a horribly impossible thing to do! :) So societies that have no way to write it... or will be punished for writing it down.. would carefully remember these 'documents' so that they could still be shared.

5. What is the difference between oral history and personal observation?:
Oral history is something that is told to a person-usually a person that has very little experience with what is being discussed. One purpose of oral history is to share something with someone who doesn't have that experience. Personal observation is experience. While people can tell you their experience, you as the historian will also be colored by your view of the experience and merging the perspectives will be more difficult if not impossible. The best way for me to understand this is by looking at the difference between the words sympathy and empathy. A person can have sympathy and some understanding of an experience, but because they have not experienced it, they cannot have the depth of knowledge of one who has personally experienced it. So a woman who has lost a child has a much better understanding of a different woman’s situation when she has lost a child and can have empathy, but a woman who has never had a child cannot not truly understand what that other person has gone through- no matter how many times it is explained. There will always be missing pieces... sort of like the concept of history in general. :)

6. Why is oral history especially important in this age of communication revolution?: People in this communication age are far less likely to keep written documents such as journals. Facebook allows you to store and save your status updates now, but that doesn't tell you what was said in conversations or really what you were thinking when you wrote that tiny jot of information. And once we forget the information... it is gone. People used to write letters and mail them- now we write emails and delete them... or we save time and talk on the phone. I think we also spend less time with people these days and so sharing with people is less of a priority. We divide ourselves off and just are not big parts of our communities as we once were. We are not as intimate with a large amount of people and our circle of trust grows ever smaller. However, this rationale may only apply to the 'common man' as the more well off and famous are very likely to have volunteers to collect and categorize the person's written documentation. These documents may be less revealing than the past and certainly may not always be the most truthful or unbiased, but these documents should help to flesh in a picture that we would not have had without them.

7. What is the relationship between written records and oral history?: I think the easiest way to discuss these two topic is to start by saying that by themselves they are useful and I do not want to suggest that alone they are not useful documents with which to discuss and research a topic- but only together does the most complete picture of that slice of history able to be discovered. Memory is a fragile substance and when someone tries very hard to be the most accurate because there will be no written record, memory appears to be the most valuable and 'solid'. But without that intense effort memory is a fluid object that can change based on perceptions of the event, passage of time, etc... Oral history can give us insight into new ways to determine written documents as well as a way of verification. When there are discrepancies, that can help open the mind to ideas of new research.

8. What is the greatest advantage of oral history over written records? What are some of the drawbacks of oral history?: The greatest advantage of oral history is that the historian gets to participate so the historian can actively ask for what information they want. Everyone wants to know if Richard III 'did it', but we can't actually ask can we? :) So if the researcher take the time to look into the desired subject, the interview can be filled with questions that potentially bring forth greater meaning and understanding into the subject matter. Sort of an efficient way of getting to the knowledge that you seek! Having questions that have been thought of and determined as useful can have some biases but can also preserve information that would otherwise have been lost... and may very well be useful to future historians. Oral history sometimes is a way to preserve stories and history that would otherwise be lost entirely as some cultures are biases against actively recording your own history. Oral history is also biased in its openness- you do not have to be rich and famous to apply and so it can provide an every-man’s perspective. It can also explain the 'why' behind a person's actions whereas sometimes written documentation is very much caught up in the 'how'. Also, oral history with several slightly different tellings of the same event can also give us clarity into the situation - some constants throughout the stories will make parts of the tale clear. However, some drawbacks are that written documentation for the 'everyman' will probably be lacking- it is important to remember that oral and written history compliment each other. Oral history is also dependent on memory which can have flaws and can be colored by perspective and bias. That said, almost all historical sources have flaws and so knowing the flaws allows us to use the source to its best advantage and your the most valuable use.

9. What is the importance of research in oral history?: Oral history is a great form of documentation, but it needs to be used if at all possible as a complimentary form of documentation. No form of history can be truly accurate if there is nothing to compare it too... what I mean is there is no way to show how accurate it is. So all history should be validated through other sources and oral history is not immune from this rule. Oral history is also very likely to have 'gaps' of information that can be filled in with written documents and other sources. Research before the oral interview is extremely important as well, because it helps you to know what you need to ask; i.e. what answers you already have, what is missing, what is not clearly understood, etc... Otherwise you can have a interview that is full of already know facts and to find to more... you have to do another interview. A little bit of a waste of everyone's time really.

10. What is meant by the phrase “historical significance”?
Why is it important?: Historical significance basically means that there is an meaning or message to the information that is important to that time in history. So you need to ask yourself some questions about a topic to decide if it has historical significance... such as was this information important at the time and does it continue to be important today? How was this information used at the time and changed or not changed over the following years and generations. Did this facts/actions change things that followed in time and place. The term 'historical significance' also is a term in which what information is important depends on what the questions are that are being asked and how the questions and the answerer 'fit' into their cultural, political, local landscape,etc...!

11. What questions/issues should you consider as you decide what topic to research?: One important question (to me) is what topic would I find myself interested in pursuing... or would really find fascinating? No matter how important and needful the information is, if the historian has no real interest or enthusiasm for collecting the information it can effect the results in ways that may not easily be seen or detected. Another question I should ask is how will my interview contribute to the knowledge and information already known- or what will my work be adding to the already collected data.

Hope you enjoyed this!


  1. I am about to start an assignment on the advantages and disadvantages of archival and oral histories. Your blog was a lucky find. Thank you for posting.

  2. I am so glad that you enjoyed it! Thank you for your comment- you literally made me smile today. :)