The Oral History Association defines oral history as “a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events.”
It is both a research technique and a way of interpreting that research. It is an inherently interdisciplinary field.
The term itself can provoke confusion. Even though we call it “history,” it is not the same as “history” practiced by traditional historians. Such historians very often focus their work on documents created by people at the time events take place, and are principally interested in an accurate reconstruction of the past.
Oral history, by contrast, while certainly not ignoring traditional forms of historical documentation, takes as its subject people’s memories of the past, and seeks to understand what those recollections can tell us about both the past and the present.
In this sense, oral history is as related to the fields of psychology, sociology and ethnography, as it is to history.
At the same time, oral history is an archival practice, concerned with the proper creation and maintenance of the recordings containing these memories. Oral historians therefore carefully document the ways memories are generated, recorded, preserved and shared.
Click here for a list of the questions I asked during my Vietnam interviews.