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Oral History

by Ron Kurtus (12 September 2001)

Oral History is the recording of past events from the people who experienced them. Although attempts are made to record oral history from the decision-makers and those who directly caused the events, usually oral history involves those affected by events.

The power of oral history is that it gives a picture of what really happened, as opposed to the opinion of a researcher using written documents as resources.

Questions you may have about this are:

This lesson will answer those questions.

History comparison

History is a record and analysis of the past. There is a difference between traditional historical study and that of oral history.

Historians examine written work, crafts, and other material that can provide clues to what happened in the area of study. Often the historian will analyze the information and provide his or her viewpoint on what happened and why it happened. Often, this includes the person's own political or religious bias to the historical event.

On the other hand, oral history is a recording of recollections of elderly people about some important events from 50 to even 80 years ago. Usually, the oral historical gets a wide range of opinions in order to establish what really happened from the different viewpoints. Of course, it is possible for the historian to color the event by selecting only those interviews that fit his own viewpoint, but hopefully that does not happen often.

Method of oral history

The method of oral history is to ask a person his or her recollections about an event and then record the response on audiotape or videotape. Often the tape is then transcribed into text form, but the nuances from a live interview also have great value.

The ideal method is to ask about an event and let the person ramble on according to his or her memories. Some guidance is often needed to keep the person on track, without breaking the recollection stream. On the other hand, care must be taken not to ask leading questions that will bias the interview.

Examples of oral history

Writer Studs Terkel specializes in oral history and popularized the subject. In his book about the Great Depression of the 1930s, he asked people who had gone through the Depression, as well as those who heard stories from their parents and relatives. As an example of the variety of responses Terkel received, after he asked a 20-year old what he knew about the Depression, the young man replied, "Man, I've been depressed a lot lately."

The American Public Broadcasting System (PBS) has many oral history videos on topics such as World War II. Being able to interview people from both sides of the battle and getting their recollections of events is priceless. In a few instances, higher officials have also been interviewed.


Oral history is a special branch of history that deals with personal experience of the recent past. Audio or video tape recordings are made, and the material of often transcribed into text. Lessons that can be learned from this bit of history are that:

You feel good after doing your best

Resources and references

Ron Kurtus' Credentials


What is Oral History? - History Matters course

Oral History Association

International Oral History Association

Oral History - Wikipedia

History Resources


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