Upstate Oral History Program: Home
Foundations of the Oral History Genre
Oral history is the recording of personal experiences, knowledge of, and reflections on past events. The term accounts for the act of recording the interview and also the product of it. Oral history, by this definition, was developed in the 1940s by renowned historian Allan Nevins and his colleagues at Columbia University. These interviews are conducted with people who observed or participated in past events and whose recollections have chosen as part of the aural record preserved for future generations. Foundational tenets of the oral history genre have undergone shifts over the decades, which have led to our modern tradition of oral history
The Oral History Association (OHA) in the United States issued it's first formal guidelines and principles for the creation of oral history in 1968. At that time, oral history was used as data or empirical evidence, implying some assumptions about objectivity on the part of those involved in the creation of the interview. In the 1980s, due in large part to the influence of cultural and gender studies, a debate emerged over whether oral history qualified as primary source documentation or if it was the process of constructing history from oral sources. These discussions allowed for subjectivity in the oral history record. A new set of Principles and Standards was issued by OHA in 1990, which directly addressed subjectivity and the interactive nature of an oral history interview, and emphasized the diversity of social and cultural experiences and their implications.
The next edition of standards and guidelines were released in 2000 and directly addressed the digital revolution and its impact on oral history. These guidelines were streamlined again in 2008, and for the first time used the terms "narrator" and "interviewee" interchangeably. A new iteration of the Principles and Best Practices for oral history was produced by OHA in 2018. This update document, according to two of it's authors Troy Reeves and Sarah Milligan "...among other things, reaffirms not only respect for narrators and their communities, but also the importance of being attentive to those who are especially vulnerable; it reemphasizes the dynamic, collaborative relationship between interviewer and narrator, with a commitment to ongoing participation and engagement and sensitivity to differences in power, constraints, interests and expectations. These principles have been incorporated into four documents listed above (Core, Ethics, Best Practices, and Participant’s Rights), as well as a glossary to help define more deeply some of our terms."
Oral History Collections
Oral history is pervasive and many collections are available for public use. Below you will find content from a few well-known oral history programs.
Oral History Resources
For those interested in best practices for the field, the following materials will provide a foundation for producing ethical and effective oral history interviews.