Oral History Tells Us About Our Ancestors
Have you ever asked your granny or granddad to tell you stories about when they were young? Or maybe an elderly aunt or even a family friend has hinted at scandals from the past, that you never heard about when you were a child? Maybe someone said something that was instantly hushed over? An older cousin of mine told me stories that my own parents would never have mentioned and one of my grannies told me a shocking story that happened before I was born, to an uncle and aunt, involving a tiny baby and a young neighbor child. Maybe you have been to listen to a bard or story teller, telling tales about past events? The story-telling tradition, possibly especially at Hallowe’en, Christmas or New Year is still strong in some communities.
Children in school are often given an oral history project to carry out on something local, whether memories of a war or a local landmark and asked to interview their elderly relatives or their friends to find out more about that era.
This is all oral history, whether it’s about what happened during a war or something that happened locally or just something within one family. Sometimes, we hear these stories and we forget details when we come back to tell someone else, or go to search for our family history. That’s why it can be useful to write down these stories before the person telling them either dies or is no longer able to communicate. There are many cases where people have said “I wish I had listened to my granny when she was here …” or other similar regrets.
What Is Oral History
Academics use oral history to reconstruct people’s daily lives in past generations. They would consider oral history to be the study and collection of oral historical information about people, places, significant events, or daily life with oral transcripts, videotapes, audiotapes, or written transcriptions of oral interviews. Oral history has various forms and is often referred to as the history of oral culture, the oral tradition, or oral history. In this form of documentation, oral sources are often cross-reproduced in chronological order, but without changes to the meaning of the text. Oral history is a rich source of information about people and their lives and helps researchers learn about past demographic patterns, local culture, and community organization.
Oral history was one of the first ways that people documented their lives. Oral histories were common in ancient societies such as Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Mesopotamia, where households had histories compiled by their elders. Such records offered details about family members, battles, and events that took place, usually during ritual occasions. Through oral history, people learned about common customs, religious beliefs, geography, and even political activities. It also contributed to our modern understanding of human interaction and development.
During the twentieth century, different methods were developed for interviewing people who have yet to die. Interviewing living people is a challenging task in many regards, as the duration of time the interviewee will live is still unknown, and the possibility of further encounters with the interviewed subject is not always possible.
The process of documenting oral history depends on several different methods. Interviews are often done by experts such as archivists or former residents of the area in which the interviews take place. Oral histories are often recorded by interviewees that the oral history researcher has in common with.
Some researchers turn to documentary sources, especially oral histories that focus solely on an aspect of the subject’s history, such as the period of the subject’s life or the activities of their life. Oral material from such sources can be mixed with the personal interviews to provide a more comprehensive picture of the subject. One such method of documentation is the creation of a documentary interview transcript, which is a written summary of an oral interview that contains all of the relevant points that can be related to the subject and which provide insight into their thoughts and opinions.
Another method of documentation is the creation of a video collage, which is the compilation of still photos and video clips that show specific events or occurrences in the subjects’ lives. These photographs and videos make fascinating study materials, which can be used to teach students about the subject, and they allow students to see how they would have interacted if they were in the interviewees’ place and time.
If you are conducting an academic oral history interview, then you need to keep the style guide in mind. The guide is designed to provide a clear and concise explanation of proper interviewing practices. It provides a list of questions to be asked in a formal interview, and it describes the format of responses to these questions. When you are preparing for an oral history interview, you should always refer to the style guide.Another advantage of using oral histories is that it allows you to speak to people who might not otherwise be receptive to your questions. This might be especially important if you are interviewing older people, because sometimes there are assumptions about their past that are subtly made when they first meet you. Sometimes these assumptions are wrong, and it is because older people might not be aware that they are being categorized incorrectly, leaving them with wrong expectations from the beginning.
Oral histories allow you to tell us stories about the people who had an impact on our history. You can learn more about the people who created history, and you can learn their perspectives and thoughts about their lives. You can tell us their anecdotes, and their unique personal details that help you interpret their words. Oral histories give us insight into the lives of key people, and by telling us their stories, you can give us a richer view of how we became the way we are. This is important, because without the stories of those who came before us, we wouldn’t know how we got to where we are today.
You may not want to provide a huge document to be used by future historians but recording your own family history is good fun and may be interesting to those who come after, as well as useful for anyone who wants to record their family history. How many old photographs do you have with no dates or notes on them as to who the people were or why it was important to photograph them? It is of course possible to keep a diary of current events. While not oral history, this can be useful in providing dates and events that may match up with later oral histories. Of course, the lives of ordinary people and how they lived is just as important as those of well-known people.
Keeping a record of family stories from talking to older family members is also useful as a way of keeping older people involved and able to communicate. Those with early dementia may not always make sense when asked about what is happening currently but their memories of the past may be sharp and crystal clear and they usually enjoy talking about the past to someone who will listen. Why not write down these family memories? They may provide important information for you or future family members and it is certainly an enjoyable way to spend time with an older person who may not be around for much longer.
Madge enjoys talking to older relatives about their memories of when they were young. There were so many oral history stories she heard when young that she now doesn’t have details for, so these days she writes them down in a book to keep a record.