Oral Histories + Traditions

Smithsonian Institution Archives historian Hannah Byrne runs through five easy steps to help you get started doing oral history at home. Oral history is a technique for generating and preserving original, historically interesting information—primary source material—from personal recollections through planned recorded interviews.

Oral history is a technique for generating and preserving original, historically interesting information – primary source material – from personal recollections through planned recorded interviews.  This method of interviewing is used to preserve the voices, memories and perspectives of people in history. It’s a tool we can all use to engage with and learn from family members, friends, and the people we share space with in an interview that captures their unique history and perspective in their own words. Oral history stems from the tradition of passing information of importance to the family or tribe from one generation to the next. In the United States, the Oral History Association connects oral historians and provides a broad range of information on oral history.

Technique:  The methodology of oral history can be adapted to many different types of projects from family history to academic research projects in many different disciplines.  The interviews should usually be conducted in a one-on-one situation, although group interviews can also be effective.

Sharing:  In collaboration with a well-prepared and empathetic interviewer, the narrator may be able to share information that they do not realize they recall and to make associations and draw conclusions about their experience that they would not be able to produce without the interviewer.

Preserving:  Recording preserves the interview, in sound or video and later in transcript for use by others removed in time and/or distance from the interviewee.  Oral history also preserves the ENTIRE interview, in its original form, rather than the interviewer’s interpretation of what was said.

Original historically important information:  The well-prepared interviewer will know what information is already in documents and will use the oral history interview to seek new information, clarification, or new interpretation of a historical event.

Personal recollections:  The interviewer should ask the narrator for first-person information. These are memories that the narrator can provide on a reliable basis, e.g., events in which they participated or witnessed or decisions in which they took part.  Oral history interviews can convey personality, explain motivation, and reveal inner thoughts and perceptions.