What is Oral History?
While passing down history orally is probably as old as humanity, the field of oral history is less than a century old.
On December 12, 1942, The New Yorker published an article about Professor Sea Gull, a “Harvard graduate, hobo panhandler and writer of “An Oral History of Our Time.’” According to Donald Ritchie, Gould “wandered around Greenwich Village” writing down people’s histories. “I’ll put down the informal history of the shirt-sleeved multitude—what they had to say about their jobs love affairs, vittles, sprees, scrapes, and sorrows—or I’ll perish in the attempt,” he told the New Yorker. After his death, no oral histories were discovered but he had coined a new phrase: oral history.
In 1948, Allan Nevins created the Columbia University oral history archives, founding the Columbia Oral History Research Office. He took notes in shorthand, gathering the stories of politicians, business elites, civil leaders, and others.
By the 1960s, historians were conducting oral histories of everyday people. Influenced by social history and history from the “bottom up,” historians began to ask questions that were not evident in the historians’ typical written sources. In 1966, the premier national organization promoting oral history, The Oral History Association, was founded. By the 1970s, oral history centers began to emerge at universities. The UTEP Institute of Oral History, founded in 1972 with interviews going back to the 1960s, is part of this history.
But what is oral history? According to the Oral History Association, “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 about memory and lived experiences. It is about listening and being heard. It is about the past and how people give meaning to the past.
For more information, visit the website of the Oral History Association at www.oralhistory.org and read one of the field’s classics, Doing Oral History by Donald Ritchie (2014).