Since the 1970s oral history in Britain has grown from being a method in folklore studies to become a key component in community histories. Oral history continues to be an important means by which non-academics can actively participate in making history. However practitioners across a range of academic disciplines have also developed the method into a way of recording, understanding and archiving narrated memories.
Oral history has also emerged as an international movement. Within this movement oral historians have approached the collection, analysis and dissemination of oral history in different ways. In broad terms while oral historians in Western Europe and North America have often focused on issues of identity and cultural difference, oral historians in Latin America and Eastern Europe have tended to pursue more overtly political projects.
However, there are many ways of doing oral history even within single national contexts.
In Britain the Oral History Society has played a key role in facilitating and developing the use of oral history. Internationally oral historians are represented by the International Oral History Association (IOHA).
Oral history was the first kind of history according to Paul Thompson in The Voice of the Past,(1) a key publication in the re-emergence of oral history.
For centuries the use of oral sources in understanding the past was commonplace. Thucydides, the Greek historian writing in the 5th century BC, made much of the accounts of eye-witnesses of the Peloponnesian Wars, Whose reports, he claimed, I have checked with as much thoroughness as possible.(2) By the time Bede came to write his History of the English Church and People, completed in 731 AD, he simply noted his thanks to countless faithful witnesses who either know or remember the facts.(3) Even as late as 1773 Samuel Johnson expressed a keen interest in oral histories and oral tradition in his study of Scottish beliefs and customs
There then followed a long period when written sources seemed to dominate the practices of professional historians in the west. The weakening of oracy, with the rise and spread of the printed word, combined with the adoption of reductionist and empirically based methods in academic study, meant that the significance of oral testimonies was poorly understood. As a result, while oral sources often played a significant part in the writing of histories, these were just as often downplayed in comparison with evidence drawn from documents. The lack of acknowledgement of oral sources was compounded by a failure to access their value in any meaningful way.
This was set to change in the second half of the 20th century. And in 1969 an informal day conference at the British Institute of Recorded Sound (BIRS) led to the formation of a committee that would in turn establish in 1973 the Oral History Society.(4)
It is perhaps historians and archivists interested in local histories that can make the claim of taking the earliest initiatives in oral history in the 20th century. It was noted in an edition of the Amateur Historian in 1957, for example, that the collection of information from old people does not feature in the textbooks, yet it is an essential process in compiling local history.(5)
Another important influence in the remaking of oral history came from those with an interest in capturing the disappearing traditions of the countryside. In the 1950s the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University and the Welsh Folk Museum established recording programmes. A common feature of these early folk life collections was the recording of minority groups, such as Gaelic speakers. While Eric Cregeen proved an inspirational figure in Scotland, in England it was the work of George Ewart Evans that provided an important and lasting contribution. In addition to folklore studies, there were a number of initiatives that were interested in dialect and linguistic aspects of the spoken word, including the School of English at the University of Leeds and the Centre for English Cultural Tradition at Sheffield.
In the 1960s the newly emerging discipline of labour history was also finding value in oral sources. Information was difficult to find about the past domestic and working lives of the majority of the population. And there were large parts of British working class history that were simply absent from surviving documentary evidence.
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