While many imagine historical research is done in an old archive with dusty old books and ancient scrolls spread across a centuries-old table, that is far from the truth. While a great deal of research is conducted within special collections libraries, a significant amount can also be done online. Books and documents are not the only sources of historical information. Over the past few decades, oral histories have become a more important source that incorporates a human element into research.
What is an oral history? According the Oral History Association, partnered with the Columbia Center for Oral History Research, it 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. Oral history is both the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word, and one of the most modern, initiated with tape recorders in the 1940s and now using 21st-century digital technologies.”
The Oral History Association differentiates oral histories from other interviews due to their content and extent. The purpose is to allow the interviewee time to recount and reflect upon their own personal experiences of the past. Other interviews tend to look for opinions or information on contemporary events.
How are oral histories used in research? Facts alone sometimes do not help one understand the social aspects of past events. This is where oral histories come in. As time passes, an interviewee can recall how they felt during an event and reflect upon what was happening at the time. This information can be used to supplement traditional research. Someone may remember an instance that helps drive research in a new direction, bolsters an existing thesis, or even debunks a thesis. Oral history is meant to complement traditional research, not replace it, because just as in written history, some stories must be taken with a grain of salt.
Oral histories can present some difficulties when being used for research. There are certain events that people will remember clearly for decades. Examples include, but are not limited to, John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Challenger space shuttle explosion, and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Most people remember where they were the day they witnessed or heard about certain pivotal events, as well as how they and others reacted and felt during that time. When talking about broader aspects, however, memory may become unreliable as more and more time passes. Memory may fail over time, and cognitive dysfunction as one ages becomes a problem as well. That is why collecting as many oral histories as possible about an event is beneficial to garnering a more well-rounded story from different points of view. Another concern with oral histories is whether the interviewee is telling the truth, embellishing details, or lying about an event.
Why would someone lie in an interview? Often times, to make themselves look better or to protect themselves from potential backlash. One example compares oral history and written history in that way: a a company commander writes a report about a battle back to his superiors, and to make themselves look better, tweaks the numbers to make it seem like a hard-won battle was won with ease. Another example would be an explorer exaggerating their needs to a king to procure more resources and supplies. Instances such as these are why well-rounded historical research is key.
In addition to presenting a more rounded historical account, oral history projects can serve as a means to bring a community together. For the St. Augustine Historical Society, the Surf Culture oral history project demonstrated this possibility. We discovered that there was a sizeable demographic of people excited to share their stories, and by conducting oral history interviews with them, we were able focus on a whole new history of St. Augustine through the eyes of surfers, who also took part in a series of events and provided a significant number of materials for both digital and physical exhibits.
Another project our Collections Manager, Robert Covert, started this year is Stories of Service: A St. Johns County Veterans Oral History Project. He has been collecting oral histories from local veterans since the beginning of 2023. The stories he’s gathered have shown that there is no uniform experience for soldiers, sailors, marines, or airmen. There are so many different lenses with which to view service experiences both at different times and during the same times, even within the same branch of the U.S. Armed Forces. Oral history endeavors like this also serve to give a voice to the everyday
To learn more about oral history projects, Baylor University Institute for Oral History in Texas is well renowned in the field. You can learn more about them here.
University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program has also grown substantially since their founding in 1967, having gathered over 8,000 interviews as part of their Digital Collections. You can learn more about them here.
Written by Nicole Diehm and Robert Covert
Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Accessed June 12, 2023. https://www.baylor.edu/library/index.php?id=974108
Oral History: Defined. Oral History Association, Accessed June 20, 2023. https://oralhistory.org/about/do-oral-history/
Principles and Best Practices. Oral History Association, Accessed June 20, 2023. https://oralhistory.org/about/principles-and-practices-revised-2009/#:~:text=Oral%20history%20is%20distinguished%20from,story%20the%20fullness%20they%20desire.
Thompson, Paul. The voice of the Past: Oral History. Oxford: University Press, 2009.
University of Florida Liberal Arts and Sciences: Samuel Proctor Oral History Program: Our Mission, Accessed June 12, 2023. https://oral.history.ufl.edu/welcome/mission/