Oral History

Oral history is an account of the past transmitted by word of mouth. Since the beginnings of its modern form, oral history has made important contributions to the ways in which we understand and interpret the past; it has become a "subprofession" and has resulted in some valuable books. Allan Nevins of Columbia University, New York, generally considered to have started the modern oral-history movement, began his interviewing in 1948 accompanied by a graduate student who "took notes in long hand as Nevins evoked a stream of reminiscences from his subject." This method has a long history: Herodotus got information for his account of the Persian Wars in the 5th century BC by writing down what the survivors remembered. Much later, Walter Scott's interviews with the Jacobite remnants of 1745 became the basis for his Waverley novels.

In the early 1950s recording on tape came into general use in North America. The first really portable recording equipment was the Webcor tape machine, which was the size of a suitcase and weighed over 11 kg. By the 1970s the cassette recorder was small enough to be carried over the shoulder or in a pocket. Oral history in the 1980s is a child of the electronic age and, as an organized activity, popular movement or pastime, has expanded as recording equipment has grown smaller.

Although oral history includes folklore and even folk songs (see folk music), at its centre is the interview. Much of the oral history course offered at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, is devoted to study of the interview, of which there are various types. Columbia University favours recording the memoirs of important people, or what British oral historian Paul Thompson calls "the great man project." There is also the ordinary-person interview which American historian Louis Starr called "history-from-the-bottom-up"; this has proved to be immensely popular when presented in book form, as in Studs Terkel's Working (1974), which became a Broadway show, and Barry Broadfoot's best-selling oral history of the Great Depression in Canada, Ten Lost Years (1973), which was also highly successful when it was adapted for stage presentation. Interviews with ordinary people form the basis of the social and community histories favoured by Thompson, numerous local and regional ethnic projects, and such large-scale surveys as the one at Duke University (Durham, NC) on how black disenfranchisement came about in the southern US.

The ordinary-person interview, perhaps requiring more skill and empathy than does recording the memoirs of the famous, has given a human dimension previously lacking in historical accounts. It can be said that oral history has made the illiterate literate and has given the silent masses a voice. Furthermore, the experience of hundreds of interviews has shown that the average person is much more frank and forthcoming when speaking, even in the presence of a microphone and recording machine, than when writing. (This fact may be attributed to use of the telephone, which has largely replaced the pen as the instrument of social contact and communication.) Good oral history requires much more than a microphone and a willing subject: during interviews, questions must be presented deftly and fairly. If the results are to be published, the interviews need to be subjected to careful, often difficult and sophisticated editing which allows the subject's story to be told in his or her own words, with a minimum of distortion.

Canada's academic historians tend to be suspicious of oral history; they argue that people's memories are distorted by time, and that oral history is therefore frequently unreliable. They often side with British historian A.J.P. Taylor, who dismissed it contemptuously as "old men drooling about their youth." Some Canadian historians point out that oral history can be no more accurate than autobiography, and urge that a subject's memories must be checked, whenever possible, against documentary sources. In contrast, American historians seem to be much more attuned to the electronic age and, although they may have reservations, many of them make use of interviews in their work. There are oral-history courses in many universities in the US and, in most cases, the history departments run these courses, whereas the history departments of Canadian universities tend to ignore the subject. The movement was first institutionalized in the US: the Oral History Association (US) was formed in 1967, the British Oral History Association in 1973 and the Canadian Oral History Association in 1974.

Universities took the lead in the US, and their projects have been funded by private sources such as the Rockefeller Foundation (see "Soundings of the Sony Age" in RF Illustrated, 3 May 1977). In Canada the government archives and agencies are the main proponents of oral history, while the universities, with the exception of Simon Fraser, have taken little interest. The National Archives of Canada, under the direction of W.I. Smith, a creative archivist, has actively assisted in oral-history projects. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was the first institution to collect interviews. The National Museums and provincial archives have continuing projects, the most remarkable of which is the BC government's Sound Heritage Series, published in Victoria since 1973.

But oral history is not the domain of institutions alone. Many individuals and amateur groups have taken up oral history as a hobby. In Canada it received a special impetus with the preparations for the Centennial of 1967: many groups, often assisted by government grants, collected and published local histories, and the trend has continued with such projects being tied to special anniversaries of towns, cities and provinces.

See also Oral Literature.