Here at Small Stones, we LOVE hearing about students collecting oral histories from people in their communities. For this second installment in our Oral Histories Series, here’s a quick who/what/where/when/why/how explainer to help students understand to how powerful oral history can be–and to see themselves as historians.
Oral histories are simply stories people tell about their own lives and experiences. They can be about subjects we typically think about when we think about history, like experiences of war and conflict, political events, and famous people. But they can also be about everyday experiences, like moving from one place to another, raising a child, learning a new skill, or even going to school.
Our understanding of history is shaped by what we choose to record. If we only focus on typical “historical” events, we miss big chunks of what life was actually like for people in a particular time and place.
Anyone can take an oral history! And anyone can share their own experiences to be preserved. Some of the most fascinating stories that help us to understand the most about the past exist because somebody sat down with another person and simply asked her life.
One notable instance of people collecting oral histories in the United States came during The Great Depression in the 1930s, as part of the Federal Writers’ Project. Writers were sent around the country to document the lives and folklore of everyday Americans. You can learn more about this project here.
Sometimes the best person to collect a story isn’t an official historian; it’s someone the subject knows well and feels comfortable speaking with.
You can record an oral history anywhere the subject feels comfortable. Some people conduct formal interviews in conference rooms or classrooms. Others meet at a coffee shop and find a quiet corner. Still others prefer to tell their stories in their own homes.
Technology makes taking oral histories even easier today than in the past; distance doesn’t have to stop you! While it’s best to be in the same place, it’s now possible to interview people over video chat, a phone call, email, text messages, or even social media.
The most important aspect of recording an oral history is making sure the subject feels comfortable. For some people, this may be at a specific time of day. For others, it might be over the weekend. Some people feel more comfortable talking after a major life event is over–for example, if they are busy working towards earning a college degree, they may want to talk to you about it after graduation.
Others, however, may want to share their stories even as they continue living them. Many people are presently taking oral histories from refugees, for example, who still have yet to find a more permanent home. It may also be the case that stories like these, that are still ongoing, are especially powerful to preserve and share to help shape the eventual outcome for those living in difficult situations.
It’s easy to think that history doesn’t have much of an impact on the present. But history is happening now, all around us, and it will be shaped by the stories that we choose to preserve and the voices we choose to amplify. The better we understand the stories of the people around us, the better we are able to work towards the kind of world that we ultimately want to have.
There are SO many tools available for taking oral histories right now. A pen and paper will work just fine to record interview notes. Most of us walk around with recording devices in our pockets; smartphones can allow us to quickly and easily capture stories, whether with video or just voice, and share them with the world. And as we mentioned before, distance doesn’t have to be an issue. We can take oral histories of people who aren’t able to meet in person.
More and more, people are interested in learning about the lives of those around them, stories that might usually remain hidden. You can help shape the history of your own community, draw attention to critical issues, and create tools that foster better human understanding–all through the simple act of listening.
Coming up next: more details about how to plan, prepare for, conduct, debrief, and share an oral history yourself.