February 03, 2010
By Jessica Pritchard
Note: AHA Today has featured oral history in numerous past blog posts. This post along with an upcoming post roundup some of these previously mentioned oral history resources as well as introducing some new sources.
Most of us grew up listening to stories—stories from our parents, our grandparents, our aunts and uncles, even our childhood friends on the playground. Oral history, a systematic form of storytelling that serves as a means of historic preservation, is one of the elements that makes the study of history exciting and engaging, offering a window into firsthand accounts of the past.
However, oral history goes beyond simply storytelling. In her article, What is Oral History, Linda Shopes says, “Oral history might be understood as a self-conscious, disciplined conversation between two people about some aspect of the past considered by them to be of historical significance and intentionally recorded for the record.” In many ways, oral history democratizes the past by complimenting the written record with an oral one.
Furthermore, our digital culture has spoiled us with digital archives from around the world, existing no further than a mouse-click away. Many museums, historical organizations, universities, and special interest groups have not only created digital archives, but also oral history projects that cover spectrums of historical themes.
The following sites offer a look into the expansive realm of online oral history projects.
Centre of South Asian Studies
Branching from the University of Cambridge’s Centre of South Asian Studies, this oral history collection includes more than 300 interviews recorded during the 1960s and 70s in hopes of archiving and preserving memories from those who witnessed Indian independence and the final days of British colonial authority. The site explains, “Alongside the campaigners, freedom-fighters, and assassins, ordinary people such as doctors, missionaries, farmers, and police officers give intimate reminiscences of Empire, Indian independence, and of partition.”
U.S. Latino and Latina World War II
Somewhere between 250,000 and 750,000 Latinos and Latinas served in World War II. The number is hard to nail down concretely since the military papers from the era classified Latinos and Latinas as either white, Mexican, or N/A. In attempts to “foster a greater awareness of their [U.S. Latinos and Latinas] contributions” during the war, the site offers hundreds of stories and photographs documenting these contributions. These stories, many of which have been forgotten, recount experiences both during the war and after, especially since many veterans returned home to segregated communities. The project has interviewed more than 500 Latinos and Latinas since the spring of 1999.
Users can also explore Spotlight stories or browse stories alphabetically, by military wartime locale, by city of birth, by state of birth, or by branch of service. The site even offers literature on how to conduct oral history interviews, including various videos and a training kit. Users can also peruse an extensive list of resources centering on World War II, archiving practices, and Latino history.
U.S. House of Representatives
With the approval of the first oral history program for the U.S. House of Representatives by the Office of the Clerk in 2004, users can now access stories from the House, not only from members, but also member aides, committee staff, support staff, technical assistants, and member’s family. The Office of History and Preservation (OHP) conducted these interviews and made electronic copies of the transcripts and summaries available to the public. Each interview includes “detailed descriptions of legislative processes and procedures, personal and political anecdotes, and recollections about the evolving nature of the institution, represent a vital source of information about the inner workings of Congress.” In addition to scrolling through interviews, users can also search for interviews based around historic events pulled from each interview, ranging from the Bonus March of 1932 to changes in Capitol security in the 20th century.
The site also offers teaching resources, including a lesson plan, House History Comes Alive [PDF]; online resources that link to other digital historical databases; and teaching tips.
Presidential Oral History Program
The Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia started the Presidential Oral History Program in 1981. As with many other oral history projects, this program seeks to provide the means to preserve history, explaining, “Too often in the past, what they have to teach has been lost for lack of means to record it while they lived. The Presidential Oral History Program is a public service endeavor to provide such means and to preserve the true voices of past presidencies for posterity.” However, unlike other oral history projects, the Miller Center interviews groups of people involved in an administration, pooling together their memories of specific activities and issues to make a more complete historical record.
Currently, the site contains interviews from the following presidential administrations: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and William Clinton. In addition to covering presidential administrations, the site has also conducted interviews centering on key players in political history, including Edward Kennedy and Lloyd Cutler, and key events, including the Falklands War Roundtable and the White House Congressional Affairs Symposium.