Oral history is a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events. Oral history is both the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word, and one of the most modern, initiated with tape recorders in the 1940’s and now using 21st-century digital technologies. Historians who do this type of research attempt to understand the details and personal perspectives of history from participants.
In Doing Oral History, Donald Ritchie explains, “Oral History collects memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews. An oral history interview generally consists of a well-prepared interviewer questioning an interviewee and recording their exchange in audio or video format. Recordings of the interview are transcribed, summarized, or indexed and then placed in a library or archives. These interviews may be used for research or excerpted in a publication, radio or video documentary, museum exhibition, dramatization or other form of public presentation. Recordings, transcripts, catalogs, photographs and related documentary materials can also be posted on the Internet. Oral history does not include random taping, such as President Richard Nixon’s surreptitious recording of his White House conversations, nor does it refer to recorded speeches, wiretapping, personal diaries on tape, or other sound recordings that lack the dialogue between interviewer and interviewee.”
There are diverse approaches to conducting oral history research, relating to the researchers’ objective and field of study. For example, a sociological or psychological approach are usually directed at using the person as a vehicle to understand basic aspects of human behavior or existing institutions. Whereas Feminist approaches to life history tend to emphasize the lived experience of a narrator and how that relates to the intersection of gender, race, and social class.
The Oral History Association has compiled guidelines for designing and executing your oral history research project. The outline below serves as ethical guidelines and best research practices, respective to general research design of an oral history project. In addition, this page features resources for conducting oral history research and exemplary oral history research projects that illustrate diverse approaches.
Download the complete Oral History Association research manual
Oral History Association. The Principles for Oral Histories and Best Practices of Oral Histories. Retrieved from https://www.labor.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Oral-History-Association-Research-Manual.pdf.
The Oral History Association (OHA) presents general principles and best practices when conducting oral history. Oral history refers to the method of recording and preserving oral testimony and to the product of that process. In this research manual, readers will find summaries of the organization’s most important principles and best practices for the pre-interview preparation, the conduct of the interview, and the preservation and use of oral histories.