Definition And Principles Of Oral History

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Oral History is a recorded conversation, conducted according to generally accepted rules that aimed at turning personal memories into publicly accessible certificates. Typically, the interviewees viewed or participated in an event regarding the given subject. Oral History refers to the finished product, the story of the historical interpretation and their availability for future generations. The uniqueness of Oral History method is that the recorded Knowledge is the closest to its original form, and open to different interpretations. Oral History primarily serves historical research but is widely accepted in various fields of Social Science such as social work, Folklore and Sociology, and is often being seen as memories of events.

At the start, Oral History first steps began with the foundation of a research project at Columbia University in 1948 (1) by the historian Alan Nevins. The first goal of the project was related to the field of archiving and aimed at producing information for historians first-hand to be kept in libraries and archives. According to Nevins, the modern media of his time, the telegraph and the telephone, took the place of letters and caused a loss of sources of information of great historical value (Nevins 1996). Through the recorded interview it was possible to produce new archival sources, based on the memories of the interviewees.

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Furthermore, the University of Columbia project began with biographies of well-known Politicians and intellectuals and have moved to interviews of groups of people around a common theme. Each interview was carefully prepared through careful study of archival material and ended with a long transcript compiled and archived. The right of the interviewees to determine whether the interview will remain confidential or open to the public has been strictly guarded. In the 1950s, Nevins’ method gain popularity by other universities In the United States and abroad.

However, Alan Nevins claimed that he did not found Oral History. In ancient times historians like Thucydides and Herodotus relied on eyewitnesses’ stories which were based on things that were orally delivered. Moreover, companies with no written record have also preserved their legacy by Oral History. The innovation in Nevins’ method was the establishment of scientific criteria for systematic collection of interviews and testing them through criticism by saving them in archives. The development of recording techniques, and especially the invention of the tape recorder, ensured the reliability of the recorded conversation and allowed interviewers to concentrate on the interview.

Although this is not explicitly stated, it is clear that researchers at the beginning expected to discover facts about historical events. The interview was seen as an objective collection of material, with no interpretation of its content, but keeping the information reliable.

The next part will present the approach that characterized the Oral History projects that established by university and government research institutions in the 1950s and 1960s, that designed to create complementary sources for written certificates. The final product of the Oral History created by this method is the transcript and not the recording tape. Nevertheless, what we know today as Oral History, developed by those ideas.

Following the principles of Alan Nevins’ method (Nevins 1996):

  1. Study the research topic to discover the information area.
  2. Prepare a personalized questionnaire for the interviewee.
  3. Transcription of the interview without polishing the text and examination by the interviewee.
  4. Preserving the final version as ‘a new source for the history of our time’.  


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