Preservation ABCs: O is for Oral History

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.


O is for Oral History

A digital recorder for an oral history project.

A Tascam digital recorder for an oral history project.

Historic preservation can be considered an umbrella field for many related disciplines, though each field is its own profession and area of study, such as oral history. The Oral History Association defines the field as,

Oral history 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.

Being an oral historian is a profession that is very much a labor of love. It’s challenging, but it’s incredibly rewarding. The opportunity to show ordinary people that their stories are valuable to history and how their stories connect to others – that opportunity cannot be surpassed.

Oral history involves phone calls, background research, searching for interviewees, developing project goals and questions, choosing appropriate equipment, setting up interview dates, establishing trusting relationships with interviewees, listening, synthesizing, transcribing, answering questions and formulating reports … it’s quite the process. But throughout oral history projects you come to know people well. These people let you into their lives, if only a portion of it. Some offer coffee while you talk. Others need some reassuring about the recorders or legal forms to sign. And you learn people are beautiful, unique and interesting and have so much in common with each other. It’s an honor to conduct an oral history project.

Historic preservation includes oral history because preservation values places, stories and people, all of which oral history can connect. Sometimes a place lacks a known story because there is no written record, but someone can fill in that gap with memories. Both disciplines complement each other. At the simplest level, you could consider historic preservation as the built environment and oral history as the stories to fill and connect the environment.


7 thoughts on “Preservation ABCs: O is for Oral History

  1. marylandis says:

    Maybe oral history is the solution to the loss of so many written records (due to the digital revolution). Often we wait too long to recapture these memories. Many people involved in the subject of my work in progress on the restoration of an historic house have died. I could have interviewed them ten years ago, but I didn’t realize then that I would need to know what they could tell me.

    And don’t all of us who have lost our parents wish that we had asked more questions about their early lives and those of our family!

  2. Mark says:

    Maybe “O” is for oxymoron. There’s an odd contradiction in formally recording oral history.

    As for oral history relating to built heritage, its important to remember that information passed down through time always isn’t correct. For example, when dendrochronology is done on historic structures, it sometimes becomes evident that a building isn’t nearly as old as it was claimed to be.

    Sometimes we say things or hold convictions based on what we’d like something to be. A well known historian recently stated that guns (muskets) from the colonial era almost never discharged accidentily, that the number of accidental deaths/injuries was so minute as to be a non-issue. But a quick look at suviving documents or historic newspapers shows that such incidents were extremely common. Had these archived records not been around, many people would have taken the erroneous thoughts of this author as gospel. In this particular example, a myth gets busted.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Yes, oral history does have its drawbacks. However, I believe, the benefits far outweigh the negative. And we should all know that newspapers are skewed, and sometimes reporting on the present cannot be accurate. Oral history is most beneficial when it confirms written records, and vice versa. Then you can decipher how much is accurate.

  3. marylandis says:

    Mark has a point. Two people I have interviewed for the book I am writing have absolutely contradictory recollections of an incident that occurred in the 80s. They cannot both be right. Others who were on the scene at the time have passed away. Unfortunately there is no written record in this case.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Memory is tricky. A case like this is where the oral historian must determine if either story has merit and what, and how to interpret it. Sometimes asking the question again can clarify or letting the two interviewees talk to each other can reveal the right answer.

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