Everyone has a history – but not everyone’s story gets included in history textbooks. Partly that’s because those books have tended to focus on political history and famous people, and have relied on sources (media accounts, organizational records, autobiographies, archives, government documents, etc.) that don’t include the perspectives of more ordinary people. However, the field of oral history assumes that individual lives matter – and that social history matters too.
Oral history interviews are a wonderful way to hear and preserve people’s stories. Having a conversation is a natural way to express oneself – and more convenient for people without the time or inclination to write their own stories. The open-ended nature of good questions allows people to decide how many of their experiences and perspectives to share and to frame their own life narrative. Interviews also can be focused on particular events or groups of people.
Oral history can be a meaningful way to engage students. Not only does history come alive when interviewing someone, but it’s exciting to create sources that future historians may use. Good training helps students develop interpersonal skills, hone the art of asking questions, and think about ethics in addition to deepening their understanding people and history.
My own students have done some great work.
- Oral histories of lung transplant recipients – interviews conducted by students contributed to my second book, Second Wind: Oral Histories of Lung Transplant Survivors
- Oral histories of North Carolina women