The use of oral history

As research tools for historical projects, oral histories have many of the same issues as traditional documentary sources. They must be verified, can be biased, and often fade with the passage of time. The example of how courtroom testimony can conflict was very enlightening in understanding the challenges historians using oral sources can face if they are trying to reconstruct traumatic or controversial events. However, oral histories can be a tremendous untapped source not only for “forgotten” history not documented or archived by traditional methods, but also a powerful narrative of how ordinary people reacted to historic events.
The power of technology to resurrect this form of historical data gathering. Beyond traditional tape recordings, I believe that video can be a much more powerful means of gathering someone’s story by catching those non-verbal cues that strict audio recordings miss. Not to mention, digital video (or audio) files can be more widely distributed and archived for historian’s use. I believe that integrating oral histories into a historical project can be a powerful tool for bringing the audience into the story, which is after all, what the historian is trying to convey.

An excellent example of this is the integration of veterans’ recollections into the series “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific”. Hearing the veterans’ often choked-up remembrances-combined with the action sequences by actors, really does much more than just showing another war movie.

Probably the best historian I have read that uses oral history is Cornelius Ryan. His volumes on D-Day (The Longest Day), the fall of Berlin (The Last Battle), and Operation Market-Garden (A Bridge Too Far) are classics of World War II history. Mr. Ryan used hundreds of oral histories, combined with traditional documentary sources to write his books, and did an excellent job on overcoming the challenges of integrating many recollections into a seamless story. One of the methods he used was to rigorously cross-reference veteran’s recollections with either other veteran’s accounts or official sources before using them in his books. This is really no different that what historians should do with other sources.

Oral histories, properly scrutinized and utilized, can be a powerful addition to a historical research project. Although they are no more perfect or imperfect than any other source, their impact as personal recollections gives them a unique impact.