Using Oral Histories to Gather Historical Evidence: Process & Examples

Instructor: David Wilson

David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.

An oral history provides one of the most valuable of all historical sources, allowing historians to use the voices of persons who experienced events. Learn how to apply oral histories in this lesson.

Oral Histories

If you had a time-traveling machine, who in all of history would you most like to speak to? There's a long list of favorites like Napoleon or Cleopatra. While they're long gone, a number of people throughout history have left behind many of their words, sometimes verbatim.

Oral histories are narrated sequences of events according to the person's experience. These histories are some of the most valuable of all the historical sources available. They not only provide an eye witness view, but they also contextualize a person's experience and even their personality.

Living or Dead

In general, a historian who specializes in oral histories will spend much of their attention on living, rather than deceased, persons. While some persons have left behind records or transcripts of their own words, an oral historian strives to collect new testimony whenever possible to discover new facts and memories.

For example, an oral historian studying the Vietnam War would seek out still living soldiers and civilians on both sides (Vietnamese and American) to gather their experiences.

The Roman orator Cicero had many of his speeches recorded verbatim. This allows an oral historian to study his works, even if he died over 2000 years ago.
Cicero

Not all oral histories, however, involve living persons. Some legends, stories, and traditions are the subject of oral historians, especially in societies that have relied more strongly on passing their culture down through the generations without the written word (such as many Native American cultures). The oral historian can sometimes compare the testimony of the living to recorded letters or speeches of deceased persons to further their study.

Gathering Evidence

An oral history needs to be carefully structured in order to be historically valuable. No historian should meet, say, a former president and ask them a single question to get the information they need. Instead, an interview needs to include a wide variety of open-ended questions, questions that do not have 'yes' or 'no' answers but instead allow the person to tell a story in their own words at length.

Walter Cronkite famously interviewed John F. Kennedy in 1963, shortly before his assassination. While Cronkite was a journalist and not a historian, this is an example of capturing an oral history.
Cronkite

Some persons may be reluctant to give details about their past, while others may have language or memory issues that affect their story. Nevertheless, historians should make every effort to capture information to the participant's greatest ability, since this creation of a primary source can be very valuable not only to their own work, but also to posterity.

Using Oral Histories

An oral history can be the centerpiece of an historical argument in an essay, chapter, or book. For example, Steven Pressfield wrote the book The Lions Gate by interviewing veterans of Israel's Six-Day War, compiling their different stories into one coherent, ongoing narrative.

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