Historian Pamela M. Henson listens to an oral history recording, The Torch, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 371, Image no. 77-365-04A.

An Introduction to Oral History

Explore this brief introduction to oral history based on best practices used in the Archives’ Smithsonian Oral History Program.

When we transitioned to working remotely in March, units across the Smithsonian were encouraged to think about how we can continue to ensure our mission to increase and diffuse knowledge with the doors to our museums and research centers closed. At the Archives, we turned to our work with our oral history collection. Since 1973, the Archives has worked to record a wide, diverse range of viewpoints about the events that have shaped the Smithsonian. So what exactly is oral history?

Oral history is a technique for generating and preserving original, historically interesting information— primary source material—from personal recollections through planned recorded interviews.  This method of interviewing is used to preserve the voices, memories and perspectives of people in history. It’s a tool we can all use to engage with and learn from family members, friends, and the people we share space with in an interview that captures their unique history and perspective in their own words. Oral history stems from the tradition of passing information of importance to the family or tribe from one generation to the next. In the United States, the Oral History Association connects oral historians and provides a broad range of information on oral history. Some basic tenets include:

Technique:  The methodology of oral history can be adapted to many different types of projects from family history to academic research projects in many different disciplines.  The interviews should usually be conducted in a one-on-one situation, although group interviews can also be effective.

Sharing:  In collaboration with a well-prepared and empathetic interviewer, the narrator may be able to share information that they do not realize they recall and to make associations and draw conclusions about their experience that they would not be able to produce without the interviewer.

Preserving:  Recording preserves the interview, in sound or video and later in transcript for use by others removed in time and/or distance from the interviewee.  Oral history also preserves the ENTIRE interview, in its original form, rather than the interviewer’s interpretation of what was said.

Original historically important information:  The well-prepared interviewer will know what information is already in documents and will use the oral history interview to seek new information, clarification, or new interpretation of a historical event.

Personal recollections:  The interviewer should ask the narrator for first-person information. These are memories that the narrator can provide on a reliable basis, e.g., events in which they participated or witnessed or decisions in which they took part.  Oral history interviews can convey personality, explain motivation, and reveal inner thoughts and perceptions.

Oral history is an essential tool for us as we aim to record the history of the Smithsonian and the folks that contribute to it, but it is also an inherently democratic practice. Anyone anywhere can conduct an oral history to learn more about their friends, family, and the people they share space with. For more tools and information on conducting oral histories, check out our How To Do Oral History site. And check out what other units from across the Smithsonian are sharing over at Smithsonian Cares!

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