I love oral history because it’s all about people telling stories. Oral history is the gathering and preserving of the memories of people and communities. Although this method of history has always existed in the stories that are handed down from generation to generation, more recent technologies have allowed us to preserve these stories on tape and on video so those stories have a much wider audience.
The most well-known collection of oral histories is from the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945). In response to the Great Depression, programs were set up to provide relief, recovery and reform. The Works Progress Administration employed millions of unemployed Americans in public works, building dams and lots of other stuff. One program within the WPA was the Federal Writers’ Project, and one of the most notable of their many projects was the Slave Narrative Collection.
They collected over 2,300 first-hand accounts of slavery, along with photographs. You can find those stories at the Library of Congress in the collection Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938. Remember that this happened over 70 years after the Civil War ended, so the people who had actually lived in slavery were not going to be around for much longer to provide their accounts.
New technologies in recording equipment caused a boom in oral history in the last half of the twentieth century, especially when people realized they could do this on their own. This was no longer just for historians with fancy equipment. Anybody could turn on a recording device and interview someone else. Books were published that told people how to conduct interviews, even suggesting questions to ask. Students of all ages could interview their relatives for school projects and learned history in more depth than simply memorizing names and dates. And suddenly these people they interviewed, who were usually elderly, were more interesting than the students had every imagined.
There are many oral history collections available online and in special collections. Pretty much any history topic that you wish to study has an oral history collection available. You can search online for “oral history collection” and whatever topic interests you, from art to war. To give you an idea of the variety available, check out this Best of History Websites all about oral history. The variety of topics is amazing, and I especially want to dive into the one about 1968: The Whole World Was Watching.
If you are interested in doing your own interview, there’s an app for that. There’s a website and app called StoryCorps. My cousin interviewed her parents, my aunt and uncle, and I learned some interesting stuff. The mission of StoryCorps is “to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.” Basically, when you learn about other people, they are no longer “other”.
So go, talk to someone about their life or just record something about yourself. Because everybody has a story.