Oral History

oral history, compilation of historical data through interviews, usually tape-recorded and sometimes videotaped, with participants in, or observers of, significant events or times. Primitive societies have long relied on oral tradition to preserve a record of the past in the absence of written histories. In Western society, the use of oral material goes back to the early Greek historians Herodotus (in his history of the Persian Wars) and Thucydides (in his History of the Peloponnesian War), both of whom made extensive use of oral reports from witnesses. The modern concept of oral history was developed in the 1940s by Allan Nevins and his associates at Columbia Univ. In creating oral histories, interviews are conducted to obtain information from different perspectives, many of which are often unavailable from written sources. Such materials provide data on individuals, families, important events, or day-to-day life.

The discipline came into its own in the 1960s and early 70s when inexpensive tape recorders were available to document such social movements as civil rights, feminism, and anti–Vietnam War protest. Authors such as Studs Terkel, Alex Haley, and Oscar Lewis employed oral history in their books, many of which are largely based on interviews. In another important example of the genre, a massive archive covering the oral history of American music was compiled at the Yale School of Music. Oral history had become a respected discipline in many colleges and universities by the end of the 20th cent., when the Italian historian Alessandro Portelli and his associates began to study the role that memory itself, whether accurate or faulty, plays in the themes and structures of oral history. Their published work has since become standard material in the field, and many oral historians now include in their research the study of the subjective memory of the persons they interview.

See S. Caunce, Oral History (1994); V. R. Yow, Recording Oral History (1994), R. Perks and A. Thomson, The Oral History Reader (repr. 1998).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

Oral History: Selected full-text books and articles

Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide By Donald A. Ritchie Oxford University Press, 2003 (2nd edition)
Oral History: An Introduction for Students By James Hoopes University of North Carolina Press, 1979
Envelopes of Sound: The Art of Oral History By Ronald J. Grele; Studs Terkel; Jan Vansina; Dennis Tedlock; Saul Benison; Alice Kessler Harris Praeger Publishers, 1991 (2nd edition)
Interactive Oral History Interviewing By Eva M. McMahan; Kim Lacy Rogers Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994
War Stories: An Oral History of Life behind Bars By Susann Walens; Steven Egger Praeger Publishers, 1997
Country School Memories: An Oral History of One-Room Schooling By Robert L. Leight; Alice Duffy Rinehart Greenwood Press, 1999
Women's Oral History: The Frontiers Reader By Susan H. Armitage; Patricia Hart; Karen Weathermon University of Nebraska Press, 2002
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