What is oral history?

Oral history can be defined as the recording, preservation and interpretation of historical information, based on the personal experiences and opinions of the speaker. It may take the form of eye-witness evidence about the past, but can include folklore, myths, songs and stories passed down over the years by word of mouth. While it is an invaluable way of preserving the knowledge and understanding of older people, it can also involve interviewing younger generations.

Oral history is particularly useful for capturing stories from minority groups or small communities who will not often be represented in more formal histories. It is also useful when there is a lack of other sorts of evidence, whether written or visual.

For community historians it is a valuable tool for investigating what people did, what they thought they were doing at the time, and what they now think they did. As well as recording people’s opinions and the meanings they attach to past events, it is also useful for recording community stories, songs, folklore etc.

Please note that throughout this resource we shall use the word ‘recording’ rather than ‘interviewing’ but will use ‘interviewer’ rather than ‘recorder’. Experience has shown that people like the idea of having their memories recorded more than they do being ‘interviewed’, when there are too many thoughts of other sorts of interviews (job, radio, social services, TV, police etc.)

Have a look at The Making of Oral History website for further information on the development of oral history in the UK.

Guide: oral history introduction

Download the guide (PDF, 407kb)

Podcast summary: oral history and understanding memory

Download the podcast summary (PDF, 206kb)

Podcast: oral history and understanding memory

Download the podcast (MP3, 6,059kb)

This material is made available under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC licence. You are free to use the material as you wish but should give appropriate credit, provide a link to the licence, and indicate if changes were made. Find out further information about this Creative Commons licence.