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Oral History

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Oral History is the technique whereby trained researchers create new primary sources by careful interviews of informants. Historians have always talked to informants. What is new is the systematic identification and interviewing of selected people in order to create a long-term archive. The most expensive part is the transcription of tape recorded interviews. The technique originated in anthropology (with interviews of Indians) and folklore studies; it spread to history in the 1940s, especially the Oral History office at Columbia University, set up by history professor Allan Nevins.

Oral history began with a focus on national leaders,[1] but has expanded to include groups representing the entire population. Scientists, for example, have been covered in numerous oral history projects. Doel (2003) discusses the use of oral interviews by scholars as primary sources, He lists major oral history projects in the history of science begun after 1950. Oral histories, he concludes, can augment the biographies of scientists and help spotlight how their social origins influenced their research. Doel acknowledges the common concerns historians have regarding the validity of oral history accounts. He identifies studies that used oral histories successfully to provide critical and unique insight into otherwise obscure subjects, such as the role scientists played in shaping US policy after World War II. Interviews furthermore can provide road maps for researching archives, and can even serve as a fail-safe resource when written documents have been lost or destroyed. Launius (2003) shows the huge size and complexity of the The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) oral history program since 1959. NASA systematically documented its operations through oral histories. They can help to explore broader issues regarding the evolution of a major federal agency. The collection consists primarily of oral histories conducted by scholars working on books about the agency. Since 1996, however, the collection has also included oral histories of senior NASA administrators and officials, astronauts, and project managers, part of a broader project to document the lives of key agency individuals. Launius emphasizes efforts to include such less-well-known groups within the agency as the Astrobiology Program, and to collect the oral histories of women in NASA.

In a highly technical area Tomes (1991) looks at oral history in medicine, using the Hospital Administration Oral History Collection, at the American Hospital Association Resource Center, Chicago. Oral histories add a human element to the large bureaucratic organizations that dominate modern medicine. Interviews with physicians reveal four important elements of the total historical record of modern medicine: 1) older doctors' recall of an "extraordinary impression produced by the introduction of antibiotics" into a world rampant with infectious diseases; 2) attitudes of researchers "celebrating the march of scientific progress"; 3) a growing concern among physicians regarding increased specialization; and 4) the institutional expansion of medical centers that challenged the "East Coast bastions of medical research." These elements are vital in helping to shape a historical rather than sociological account of modern medicine as well as adding the "element of human agency" to the field.

Naison (2005) discusses the Bronx African American History Project, an oral community history project developed by the Bronx County Historical Society aimed at documenting the experiences of black working- and middle-class residents of the South Bronx neighborhood of Morrisania in New York City since the 1940s.

Feldstein (2004) considers oral history to be akin to journalism, Both are committed to uncovering truths and compiling narratives about people, places, and events. Felstein says each could benefit from adopting techniques from the other. Journalism could benefit by emulating the exhaustive and nuanced research methodologies used by oral historians. The practice of oral historians could be enhanced by utilizing the more sophisticated interviewing techniques employed by journalists, in particular, the use of adversarial encounters as a tactic for obtaining information from a respondent.

Many state and local historical societies have oral history programs. Sinclair Kopp (2002) report on the Oregon Historical Society's program. It began in 1976 with the hiring of Charles Digregorio, who had studied at Columbia with Nevins. Thousands of sound recordings, reel-to-reel tapes, transcriptions, and radio broadcasts have made it one of the largest collections of oral history on the Pacific Coast. In addition to political figures and prominent businessmen, the Oregon Historical Society has done interviews with minorities, women, farmers, and other ordinary citizens, who have contributed extraordinary stories reflecting the state's cultural and social heritage. Hill (2004) encourages oral history projects in high school courses. She demonstrates a lesson plan that encourages the study of local community history through interviews. By studying grassroots activism and the lived experiences of its participants, her high school students came to appreciate how African Americans worked to end Jim Crow laws in the 1950s.

The Oral History Review[1] is a scholarly journal begun in 1974.

H-ORALHIST is an H-Net Discussion Network (or edited Blog) established in 2006.[2] H-ORALHIST is an international network of researchers interested in creating and using oral history, focused on collecting and preserving tape-recorded remembrances of past experiences. Subscriptions are free. H-ORALHIST enables oral historians to discuss research interests, current projects, teaching methods, and the state of historiography in the field. H-ORALHIST is especially interested in methods of teaching oral history to graduate and undergraduate students in diverse settings. H-ORALHIST features dialogues in the discipline and publishes syllabi, outlines, handouts, bibliographies, tables of contents of journals, guides to term papers, listings of new sources, library catalogs and archives, and reports on new software, datasets, and other materials. Subscribers submit questions, comments, and reports. H-ORALHIST posts announcements of conferences, fellowships, and jobs. It also carries information about new books and commissions book reviews.


  1. Ritchie 2003 considers Senators and other top leaders.