The Meaning and Implication of Oral History
In the United States the institutional beginnings of oral history can be traced back to Allan Nevins’s Oral History Project at Columbia University in 1948. As a field it developed in the early 1980s and at this time advocates started to seriously reflect on its methods and implications. Today oral history and public history are considered the growth engine of the historical discipline, absorbing many historians who are competing in a tight job market. However, the importance of oral history goes beyond practical considerations. Its methodological innovations enhance yet at the same time challenge the discipline. In this paper I will discuss some of the key issues anyone who intends to “do” oral history ought to consider. While I will briefly address some of the methodological concerns, the main focus of the paper will deal with the meaning and implication of oral history.
Oral history, especially in its import on public history, has tremendous potential. It can give a voice to those who have previously been excluded from historical narratives. By incorporating everyday, ordinary people in the historical dialogue it gives them an opportunity to formulate their own meaning. A sharing of authority can take place and through this grass roots approach the “making” of history can become more democratic. Approaching history from the bottom up also encourages that a new set of questions be asked, and it can break the old molds of historical scholarship in numerous ways.
Oral history has been practiced by professionals on both sides of the academic divide and has been used for diverse purposes, from purely academic information to statistics utilized by government agencies. Oral history can be used as a supplement to traditional historical writings because it can offer a different type of source and therefore can be interpreted as a way of making more history. It has also been viewed as an alternative that allows scholars to get around the historical discipline altogether. For Michael Frisch, who has reflected on the craft and implication of oral history for two decades, these two visions of more history or no history are not entirely satisfactory. Oral history has a greater potential because it can make history more meaningful—it can be a qualitative improvement, it can make for better history. Functioning within the realms of history, this approach can enrich an already extant knowledge base. It can also be more responsive and reciprocal than the history that is written exclusively for an academic audience and lacks relevance for the public at large.
Even if oral history is conducted within institutional confines, it has potential to reach the masses. In other words, oral history can be used for social and political purposes more readily than a monograph on an obscure study that is only interesting to a handful of scholars. Frisch sees the challenge of oral history in learning how “social history,...