What is Oral History?
Oral history interviews are distinguished from other types of taped interviews in that the purpose is to create a historical record for the future. The contents are copyrighted and the rights belong to the speaker (interviewer and interviewee). Oral history interviews are designed to create a record where non previously existed as well as to shed light on existing information. The oral historian finds out what it was like to participate in a particular event or how the interviewee felt about his or her experiences. One might want to know who else was there and what they did. The oral historian will review all written materials to establish what information is already a matter of record. Then the oral historian will formulate questions designed to uncover information that is not recorded.
Often interviewees will share information about events or situations from the past with a view to clarifying the record or shedding light on what happened. Through the oral history interview, it is often possible to find out why something happened or to obtain a fuller picture of what actually happened.
Oral history interviews must be viewed by historians in the future as another primary source in the same category as letters, memoirs, diaries and journals. They are the interviewee’s recollection of an event or an experience.
The subjects of oral history interviews fall into several categories. One category is people who are significant in history, such as presidents, political leaders, community leaders, corporate executives, or celebrities. Another category is people who participated in an event or experience, such as cab drivers in New York, chefs on luxury cruises, Broadway show people, or rodeo performers—it is their collective memory that is significant. A third category is family history, interviews with certain people in a family with a view to passing along family memories and events for future generations to enjoy.
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