What is Oral History?
At its heart, oral history is about listening to and learning from stories of the past. Rooted in ancient storytelling traditions, oral history happens all the time around dinner tables, along trap lines, in coffee shops, and classrooms. It happens between generations, among students and teachers, and researchers and historical actors. The nature of listening and sharing depends on who is involved and what participants are hoping to learn or share: sacred teachings, practical skills, or an understanding of events and experiences in the past.
Why Do We Record Oral Histories?
Oral histories have different purposes and they must be analyzed in this spirit. As historian Winona Wheeler reminds us about the Ininiw (aka: Cree) epistemological context, stories are gifts given from one person to another. Some are sacred and are not knowable outside families or communities; some can only be shared in certain seasons of the year; some will not be shared until relationships built on trust and reciprocity are established. It can take years to earn the right to listen. In these contexts, oral history has always been used as a methodology for recording, sharing, and archiving. Historians trained in Euro-Western intellectual contexts embraced oral history methodology in increasing numbers after the 1970s because it allowed them to do “history from below”, uncovering perspectives and experiences not commonly available in the written documentary record. These historians were interested in eyewitness testimonies that allowed them to develop a more complete picture of the past. By the late 1980s, the field expanded to include historians interested in memory and memory making. They recorded stories to explore how and why people remember the past in the way that they do.
No matter the context, before sitting down to listen to and record stories with a smartphone, computer, digital voice recorder, or just a pair of ears, the best oral historians reflect on the following questions: why do I want to hear these stories? What do I plan to do with what I learn? Are there cultural protocols I should observe? Is there anything I might ask that would be upsetting or uncomfortable? How will I provide support if necessary? How will I thank the participant for their time? We take these steps to uphold the highest principle of ethics: to do no harm. In Canada, researchers are guided by the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (TCPS), 2nd edition.
How Do We Analyze Oral Histories?
As with other aspects of oral history, analysis takes different forms depending on the purpose and nature of sharing. In history classrooms we teach our students to contextualize in ways that are mindful of oral histories as historical sources created in the present and shaped by both teller and listener. We ask why was the oral history recorded and for whom, while also exploring how stories are shaped by the context in which they are shared. It stands to reason that strangers hear the same stories differently than do family members. Further to this, people forget things, remember things differently, exaggerate, and even lie. As such, you must ask: what is the relationship between past and present in this story? Why does a person or community members remember the past in a particular way? Analyzing oral histories is a multilayered process and what any one listener takes away varies dramatically. This makes oral history one of the most rewarding and challenging methodologies for learning about the past.
- Oral history offers the possibility of accessing the historical experiences of people about whom the standard texts and archives have little to say.
- The ethical requirements of doing oral history well and professionally are necessarily rigorous and should never be conducted without approval under an ethics review process.
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