Doing Oral History

Why Do Oral History?

  • Giving Voice: Oral history allows the historian to access the many voices of history, not just the more powerful or dominant voices traditionally found in the written record. In the history of science, technology, and medicine, for example, this includes the technicians, laboratory assistants, and “rank-and-file” scientists, researchers, health care professionals, engineers, and programmers.
  • New Information: Oral history provides historians with information not found in the written record. For example, although there’s a rich written record in the history of science, technology, and medicine, oral history allows historians to probe for scientists’, health care professionals’, and engineers’ recollections of their roles and relationships in particular events and settings, as well as their perceptions and responses to people and issues we currently regard as historically significant. We can also learn how they practice their craft, why they do the work they do, what rewards they gain from it, and how they feel about the work they do. In other words, oral history helps us learn more about what it means to do science, practice medicine or nursing, to innovate, and to do policy.
  • Humanizing History: Oral history puts people back into history, demystifying the large bureaucratic organizations that dominate modern science, medicine, and technology.
  • Layers of Meaning: Oral history helps historians understand not only what happened but also how those narrating the past understood what happened and what they may not think of it. Oral history allows us to explore many sides of an issue through multiple first-hand accounts, which gives historians the opportunity to uncover the many layers of meaning embedded in the stories and provides insights into how people understand and interpret the past and their place in it.
  • Oral History as Community Activism: Oral historians, often working together with activists and community organizations, can capture the voices, writings, and texts of individuals and communities otherwise ignored or regarded as historically insignificant by historians and archivists concerned with the dominant historical narratives. In doing so, community oral histories bring to life and assert the importance of–for scholars and the communities themselves–the stories, experiences, struggles, and meanings of the individuals who built, preserved, and transformed communities.


Evaluating Oral Histories
  • How do we evaluate other historical sources? We should apply the same interpretative scrutiny to oral history as we do any other historical source. Oral history is as reliable or unreliable as other primary sources. No single piece of data–be it written, material, or oral–should be trusted completely, and all primary sources need to be tested against other primary source material. Scholars have accepted correspondence, diaries, and autobiographies as legitimate documentation, despite the possible biases, agendas, and inaccuracies contained therein. Just as with these written sources, oral history is subjective. Oral histories provide one person’s understanding of a specific event on a given day with that particular interviewer. It is important to accept subjectivity as inherent in the process and impossible to avoid.
  • What can influence the content of an oral history interview? Age, race, ethnicity, class, and gender differences between the interviewer and narrator (interviewee) can influence the interview process and thus the content of the interview. The status or security of the narrator can influence the interview. For example, a current employee is likely to be far less candid about his or her experiences of an employer than will someone who is retired. Both the interviewer and narrator may have a political agenda for conducting and participating in the interview. This will influence the type of questions asked by the interviewer, and the responses provided by the narrator. It is important to contextualize the interview: when was it conducted? What was happening in the narrator’s personal life when the interview was conducted? What was happening politically and socially at the time of the interview? Finally, edited transcripts may not reflect the entirety of the oral history interview.
Institutional Review Boards and Oral History


Oral History Documents



There are several excellent books and online resources available on conducting oral histories and managing oral history projects. The following is a selection of some of those resources:

Oral History Manuals

Tracy E. K’Meyer, “‘It’s Not Just Common Sense’: A Blueprint for Teaching Oral History,” Oral History Review (1998) 25(1-2): 35-56.

Nancy MacKay, Curating Oral Histories: From Interview to Archive (Left Coast Press, 2006)

Nancy MacKay, Mary Kay Quinlan, and Barbara W. Sommer, Community Oral History Toolkit (Left Coast Press, 2013)

Laurie Mercier, Using Oral History in Community History Projects (Oral History Association, 2010)

John A. Neuenschwander, A Guide to Oral History and the Law (Oxford University Press, 2009)

Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson, The Oral History Reader (Routledge, 1998 and 2006)

Donald A. Ritchie, Doing Oral History (Oxford University Press, 2003)

Barbara W. Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan, The Oral History Manual (Altamira Press, 2002)

Valerie Raleigh Yow, Recording Oral History (Altamira Press, 2005)

Issues of Interviewing and Analysis

Kathryn Anderson and Dana C. Jack, “Learning to Listen: Interview Techniques and Analyses,” Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History (1991), 11-25

Richard Cándida Smith, “Analytic Strategies for Oral History Interviews,” Handbook for Interview Research (2002), 711-731

Bret Eynon, “Cast upon the shore: oral history and new and new scholarship on the movements of the 1960s.” Journal of American History (1996) 83(2): 560-570.

Charles Morrissey, “On Oral History Interviewing,” The Oral History Reader (1998),106-113

Charles T. Morrissey, “The Two-Sentence Format as an Interviewing Technique in Oral History Fieldwork,” Oral History Review (Spring 1987), 45-53

Paul Ortiz, “Behind the Veil,” Radical History Review (2007) 97: 110-117.

Hugo Slim and Paul Thompson, with Olivia Bennett and Nigel Cross, “Ways of Listening,” The Oral History Reader (1998), 114-125

Valerie Yow, “‘Do I Like Them Too Much?’: Effects of the Oral History Interview on the Interviewer and Vice-Versa,” Oral History Review (Summer 1997), 55-79

Oral History in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine

Virginia Berridge, “‘Hidden from History’?: Oral History and the History of Health Policy,” Oral History (Spring 2010): 91-100.

Nancy Tomes, “Oral History in the History of Medicine,” Journal of American History (1991) 78(2): 607-617.

Charles Weiner, “Oral History of Science: A Mushrooming Cloud?” Journal of American History (1988) 75(2): 548-559.

Online Resources

Baylor Institute for Oral History

Oral History Association: Principles and Best Practices for Oral History

Oral History Association: Oral History, Human Subjects, and Institutional Review Boards

Minnesota Historical Society: Transcribing, Editing and Processing Guidelines

Oral History in the Digital Age

Sample Forms for Managing Oral History Projects