What is Oral History?

Here are some of the many variations to definitions of Oral History:

From the Smithsonian Institution Archives

What is Oral History

Oral history is a technique for generating and preserving original, historically interesting information – primary source material – from personal recollections through planned recorded interviews.  This method of interviewing is used to preserve the voices, memories and perspectives of people in history. It’s a tool we can all use to engage with and learn from family members, friends, and the people we share space with in an interview that captures their unique history and perspective in their own words. Oral history stems from the tradition of passing information of importance to the family or tribe from one generation to the next.

From Merriam Webster Dictionary

oral history

Definition of oral history

1: a recording containing information about the past obtained from in-depth interviews concerning personal experiences, recollections, and reflectionsalsothe study of such information

2: a written work based on oral history

From Baylor University Institute for Oral History

What is oral history and why is it important?

Oral history enables people to share their stories in their own words, with their own voices, through their own understanding of what hap- pened and why. With careful attention to preserving our sound recordings, the voices of our narrators will endure to speak for them when they are gone.

From the Oral History Association

What is the definition of oral history?

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.

From Oxford Languages

o·ral his·to·ry/ˈôrəl,ˈōrəl ˈhist(ə)rē/noun

  1. the collection and study of historical information using sound recordings of interviews with people having personal knowledge of past events.

From the Glasgow Women's Library

So what are oral histories and why is it important to record them?

Oral histories have been described as ‘the first kind of history’. They’re the passing on of knowledge, memory and experience by word of mouth. They can take the form of anything from folklore, myths and stories passed from person to person, to a formal interview about a particular event with someone that is recorded and kept in an archive as an historical resource.

They’re a way of gathering, recording, and preserving a diverse range of personal experiences that generally are not well documented in written sources or traditional history in Western society. Their personal nature makes them a great primary source for people wanting to discover more about a certain event or era, providing an insight into the impact events had on the people alive and involved.