Oral testimony can capture aspects of life which are informal and unwritten and which would otherwise disappear without trace. It can bring to light the experiences of groups of people who are often barely mentioned by the history books - the poor, women, ethnic minorities and disabled people. It can sometimes go back beyond the lifetime of the speaker.
'They may not see their own memories as valuable historical sources.'
Anyone at all can contribute to this sort of history - whether they are connected to an event or person as a neighbour, relative or acquaintance, or whether they are someone contacted for a specific project through advertisements and announcements. They do not have to be old. They may not see their own memories as valuable historical sources. But what seems unimportant to someone who has lived their entire life in one place may be highly significant to a historian looking at the wider picture of change.
Oral testimony can help to fill in the gaps and explain obscure points in our understanding of the past. It also enables you to engage not just with documents and artefacts, but with real people.
And if you want to be an oral historian, you don't necessarily need to understand technology. You just need to find someone with an interesting story to tell, who is willing to be interviewed by you and to allow the interview to be recorded. Recorders are simple to operate, and are only there as mechanical notebooks.
There are several different types of recorder available now, but old-fashioned cassette tape is fine, and some experiments at home will show you how to position the microphone to get clear results from your interviews. Unless you plan to broadcast the results, perfection does not matter - as long as the words can be heard.
Testimony may be worth collecting simply in order to preserve it, but recordings in themselves are not history. They are evidence, just like documents, museum specimens and visual sources, and must be assessed for accuracy in the same ways.
'Oral testimony only becomes real history when it's been placed in an historical context ...'
Moreover speech is spontaneous, not thought out, so even the most fascinating account usually needs to be edited before being published in any way - though not 'improved' or changed without showing where something's been taken out.
Above all, oral testimony only becomes real history when it's been placed in an historical context, measured up against other sources, and compared to what historians have already written. When this is done obscure, forgotten lives begin to take on historical meaning, and help historians to explain why things took the course they did.
Published on BBC History: 2005-02-01
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