Essay on The Meaning and Implication of Oral History

Essay on The Meaning and Implication of Oral History

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The Meaning and Implication of Oral History

In the United States the institutional beginnings of oral history can be traced back to Allan Nevins’s Oral History Project at Columbia University in 1948. As a field it developed in the early 1980s and at this time advocates started to seriously reflect on its methods and implications. Today oral history and public history are considered the growth engine of the historical discipline, absorbing many historians who are competing in a tight job market. However, the importance of oral history goes beyond practical considerations. Its methodological innovations enhance yet at the same time challenge the discipline. In this paper I will discuss some of the key issues anyone who intends to “do” oral history ought to consider. While I will briefly address some of the methodological concerns, the main focus of the paper will deal with the meaning and implication of oral history.

Oral history, especially in its import on public history, has tremendous potential. It can give a voice to those who have previously been excluded from historical narratives. By incorporating everyday, ordinary people in the historical dialogue it gives them an opportunity to formulate their own meaning. A sharing of authority can take place and through this grass roots approach the “making” of history can become more democratic. Approaching history from the bottom up also encourages that a new set of questions be asked, and it can break the old molds of historical scholarship in numerous ways.

Oral history has been practiced by professionals on both sides of the academic divide and has been used for diverse purposes, from purely academic information to statistics utilized by government agencies. Oral history...

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...e are no clear answers and these problems need to be solved as specific projects arise. A German historian who deals with issues of genocide will likely arrive at a different answer than a labor historian who examines workers’ lives under particular conditions. As such there are general theoretical guidelines for oral historians to consider, and thinking about the potential societal impact of one’s work is, in my view, a necessity. The detail, however, has to be worked out in the specific context in which the work is done. Method is, undoubtedly, an important consideration but not the preliminary one. More importantly, in the words of Ronald Grele, is “the mind revealed through conversation.” And in this respect the oral historian is as much part of the unfolding story as the informants whose experiences he or she seeks to incorporate into the historical narrative.

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