“Most human affairs happen without leaving vestiges or records of any kind behind them. The past, having happened, has perished with only occasional traces. To begin with, although the absolute number of historical writings is staggering, only a small part of what happened in the past was ever observed. And only a part of what was observed in the past was remembered by those who observed it; only a part of what was remembered was recorded; only a part of what was recorded has survived; only a part of what survived has come to the historians’ attention; only a part of what has come to their attention is credible; only a part of what is credible has been grasped; and only a part of what has been grasped can be expounded or narrated by the historian.”
—Louis Gottschalk, Understanding History (1969)
Historians generally consider oral history as beginning with the work of Allan Nevins at Columbia University. Nevins was the first to initiate a systematic and disciplined effort to record on tape, preserve, and make available for future research, recollections deemed of historical significance. He conducted his first interview in 1948, and the Columbia Oral History Research Office—the largest archival collection of oral history interviews in the world—and the contemporary oral history movement were born.
Over the following decades, the standards and practice of producing oral history have slowly evolved. Still the maxim that speaks directly to evidentiary value is that oral history must be based firmly on research. Oral history is in many ways similar to oral tradition (unwritten knowledge passed on through successive generations) that can introduce error or falsification, and requires comparative evaluation for veracity. Since human memory is a selective record, then recollections (not concurrent to the subject or event) are further selective, and evidentiary value begins to decrease towards abstraction. Nevertheless, with caveat emptor in mind, the problems of evaluating spoken testimony are not so different from those inherent in the use of other primary sources. To be most effective, oral history must be grounded in sound analysis, including a thorough knowledge and understanding of all available and pertinent sources, if it is to produce the best and most reliable historical documentation.
For an excellent overview of oral history, its problems of interpretation and value as historical evidence see: Linda Shopes, “Making Sense of Oral History” online at History Matters.
The Sign Oral History Project supports the Principles and Standards of the Oral History Association in promoting oral history as a method of gathering and preserving historical information through recorded interviews with participants in past events and ways of life. Oral history interviews are conducted for a variety of purposes: to create archival records; for individual, community, and institutional projects; and for publications and media productions. Regardless of the purpose, oral history should be conducted in the spirit of critical inquiry and social responsibility, and with recognition of the interactive and subjective nature of the enterprise.
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