Oral History Essay

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Oral history uses audio-or video-recorded interviews to preserve firsthand memories, accounts, and interpretations of a person’s life, an event, a place, a way of life, or a period. Interview recordings, typed transcripts, and supporting materials are preserved and made available to researchers through an archive. The use of oral history as a historical methodology dates as far back as Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. What differentiates oral history from all other historical sources is the voice that is captured on the eve revolving recording devices that became more readily available in the last half of the twentieth century. Like all historical sources, oral history sources should be treated with skepticism and validated by other types of evidence.

As an educational methodology, oral history allows students to passively and actively engage with a range of historical voices that make history come alive for students. Passive oral history enables educators to integrate ready-made oral history sources—such as the Slave Narrative collected by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression and the extensive collection of interviews conducted by America’s most famous oral historian, Studs Terkel— into the curriculum without having to make the extensive time commitment required of a classroom oral history project.

Active oral history empowers students to become creators of historical sources rather than passive absorbers of historical information. A typical oral history project requires students to collect, preserve, and archive either biographical/life review or thematic oral history projects. The pioneering use of oral history as an educational methodology is often associated with Foxfire (www.foxfire.org), which began in 1966 at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee High School, an Appalachian community in Georgia. This project serves as a model for educators seeking to enhance students’ language and writing skills by combining oral history and folklore.

Educators may be reluctant to conduct an oral history project because of time, scheduling, and the increased accountability to standardized tests. An oral history project, however, can last as long as one day or an entire year and has been linked to national and state learning standards as well as Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences and Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. A one-day project could have students asking their interviewees one question such as, “Where were you when Pearl Harbor was attacked, John F. Kennedy was assassinated, or September 11th occurred?” or “What was it like the first time you voted?” or “Describe your immigration experience.”

Students can then compare their interviews with more traditional sources. Longer projects allow students to complete more of the oral history process that leads to more usable historical sources. The oral history process involves extensive research focused on the interview topic, the development of an initial question set with questions strategically placed to yield the best response (thus leaving controversial and emotional questions for the end of the interview), interview training (in order to avoid “yes” or “no” responses), transcription, and project archiving (which should include a transcription and recording of the interview).

The benefits of an active oral history project include building intergenerational bridges and providing a community service by collecting stories of marginalized or undocumented people, places, or historical moments. Extensive support for educators can be found online or in the growing literature on the subject as well as through collaboration with a local library or state historical society. Additional support is available through the Oral History Association and its Education Committee as well as the Consortium of Oral History Educators, whose membership is free to educators. Each of these organizations extends awards to exemplary projects at all grade levels.

In short, oral history provides students with a more authentic opportunity to connect with the past. For educators interested in reinvigorating the teaching and studying of history, an oral history project is flexible enough to be integrated into the curriculum at any grade level and across disciplines, regardless of student ability or geographical location.


  1. Lanman, B. A., & Wendling, L. M. (2006). Preparing the next generation of oral historians. Lanham, MD: AltaMira.
  2. Ritchie, D. A. (2003). Doing oral history (2nd ed.). London: Oxford University Press.
  3. Whitmann, G. (2004). Dialogue with the past: Engaging students & meeting standards through oral history. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira.
  4. American Century Project: http://www.americancenturyproject.org
  5. Consortium of Oral History Educators: http://www.umbc.edu/mrc/cohe/index.html
  6. Euclid Corridor Oral History Project: http://www.csuohio.edu/euclid_corridor
  7. Oral History Association: http://omega.dickinson.edu/organizations/oha
  8. Telling Their Stories: An Oral History Archives Project: http://www.tellmeyourstories.org
  9. The Whole World Was Watching: An Oral History of 1968: http://www.stg.brown.edu/projects/1968

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