Characteristics of Oral Histories

According to the national Oral History Association (OHA), “Oral history refers both to a method of recording and preserving oral testimony and to the product of that process. It begins with an audio or video recording of a first person account made by an interviewer with an interviewee (also referred to as narrator), both of whom have the conscious intention of creating a permanent record to contribute to an understanding of the past. A verbal document, the oral history, results from this process and is preserved and made available in different forms to other users, researchers, and the public.”

While oral historians, like some social scientists, gather information through interviews, the OHA notes that “oral history is distinguished from other forms of interviews by its content and extent. Oral history interviews seek an in-depth account of personal experience and reflections, with sufficient time allowed for the narrators to give their story the fullness they desire. The content of oral history interviews is grounded in reflections on the past as opposed to commentary on purely contemporary events.”  Unlike the inquiries overseen by the St. Olaf Institutional Review Board, oral histories do not aggregate information from multiple interviews, seek to generalize to a larger population, or test hypotheses.  Rather, they are intended to generate reflections and insights on the past.

Oral histories generally consist of three distinct phases:  a pre-interview phase, the interview itself, and a post-interview phase. The Oral History Association maintains a statement of Best Practices addressing both the ethical principles and the practical steps involved in all three phases of a well-designed oral history project.  Other helpful resources include the Minnesota Historical Society’s Oral History Project Guidelines and interview tips.