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.

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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.