"Oral History" is a maddeningly imprecise term: it is used to refer to formal, rehearsed accounts of the past presented by culturally sanctioned tradition-bearers; to informal conversations about "the old days" among family members, neighbors, or coworkers; to printed compilations of stories told about past times and present experiences; and to recorded interviews with individuals deemed to have an important story to tell.
Each of these uses of the term has a certain currency. Unquestionably, most people throughout history have learned about the past through the spoken word. Moreover, for generations history-conscious individuals have preserved others' firsthand accounts of the past for the record, often precisely at the moment when the historical actors themselves, and with them their memories, were about to pass from the scene.
Shortly after Abraham Lincoln's death in 1865, for example, his secretary, John G. Nicolay, and law partner, William Herndon, gathered recollections of the sixteenth president, including some from interviews, from people who had known and worked with him. Similarly, social investigators historically have obtained essential information about living and working conditions by talking with the people who experienced them. Thus, the Pittsburgh Survey, a Progressive Era investigation of social conditions in that city designed to educate the public and prod it towards civic reform, relied heavily on evidence obtained from oral sources.
Among the most notable of these early efforts to collect oral accounts of the past are the thousands of life histories recorded by Federal Writers Project [FWP] workers during the late 1930s and early 1940s. An agency of the New Deal Works Progress Administration, the FWP was deeply populist in intent and orientation; the life histories were designed to document the diversity of the American experience and ways ordinary people were coping with the hardships of the Great Depression. Plans for their publication fell victim to federal budget cuts and a reorientation of national priorities as World War II drew near; most of them remain in manuscript form at the Library of Congress and other repositories around the country. The best known of the FWP life histories are the "slave narratives" elicited from elderly former slaves living in the South; other narratives were collected from a variety of regional, occupational, and ethnic groups.
Though of considerable value, early efforts to record firsthand accounts of the past can be termed "oral history" by only the most generous of definitions. While methods of eliciting and recording them were more or less rigorous in any given case, the absence of audio- and videotape recorders--or digital recording devices--necessitated reliance on human note-takers, thus raising questions about reliability and veracity. Many early interviews were also idiosyncratic or extemporaneous efforts, conducted with no intention of developing a permanent archival collection.
Thus, historians generally consider oral history as beginning with the work of Allan Nevins at Columbia University in the 1940s. Nevins was the first to initiate a systematic and disciplined effort to record on tape, preserve, and make available for future research recollections deemed of historical significance. While working on a biography of President Grover Cleveland, he found that Cleveland's associates left few of the kinds of personal records--letters, diaries, memoirs--that biographers generally rely upon. Moreover, the bureaucratization of public affairs was tending to standardize the paper trail, and the telephone was replacing personal correspondence. Nevins came up then with the idea of conducting interviews with participants in recent history to supplement the written record. He conducted his first interview in 1948 with New York civic leader George McAneny, and both the Columbia Oral History Research Office--the largest archival collection of oral history interviews in the world--and the contemporary oral history movement were born.
Early interviewing projects at Columbia and elsewhere tended to focus on the lives of the "elite"--leaders in business, the professions, politics, and social life. But oral history's scope widened in the 1960s and 1970s in response to both the social movements of the period and historians' growing interest in the experiences of "nonelites." Increasingly, interviews have been conducted with blue-collar workers, racial and ethnic minorities, women, labor and political activists, and a variety of local people whose lives typify a given social experience. Similar in intent to the WPA interviews of the previous generation, this latter work especially has helped realize oral history's potential for restoring to the record the voices of the historiographically--if not the historically--silent. For similar to President Cleveland's associates, few people leave self-conscious records of their lives for the benefit of future historians. Some are illiterate; others, too busy. Yet others don't think of it, and some simply don't know how. And many think--erroneously, to be sure--that they have little to say that would be of historical value. By recording the firsthand accounts of an enormous variety of narrators, oral history has, over the past half-century, helped democratize the historical record.
To summarize: oral history might be understood as a self-conscious, disciplined conversation between two people about some aspect of the past considered by them to be of historical significance and intentionally recorded for the record. Although the conversation takes the form of an interview, in which one person--the interviewer--asks questions of another person--variously referred to as the interviewee or narrator--oral history is, at its heart, a dialogue. The questions of the interviewer, deriving from a particular frame of reference or historical interest, elicit certain responses from the narrator, deriving from that person's frame of reference, that person's sense of what is important or what he or she thinks is important to tell the interviewer. The narrator's response in turn shapes the interviewer's subsequent questions, and on and on. . To quote Alessandro Portelli, one of oral history's most thoughtful practitioners, "Oral history . . . refers [to] what the source [i.e., the narrator] and the historian [i.e. the interviewer] do together at the moment of their encounter in the interview."*
The best interviews have a measured, thinking-out-loud quality, as perceptive questions work and rework a particular topic, encouraging the narrator to remember details, seeking to clarify that which is muddled, making connections among seemingly disconnected recollections, challenging contradictions, evoking assessments of what it all meant then and what it means now. The best interviewers listen carefully between the lines of what is said for what the narrator is trying to get at and then have the presence of mind, sometimes the courage, to ask the hard questions. Yet all interviews are shaped by the context within which they are conducted [the purpose of the interview, the extent to which both interviewer and interviewee have prepared for it, their states of mind and physical condition, etc.] as well as the particular interpersonal dynamic between narrator and interviewer: an interview can be a history lecture, a confessional, a verbal sparring match, an exercise in nostalgia, or any other of the dozens of ways people talk about their experiences. Several years ago, for example, I interviewed a number of elderly Polish women who had worked in Baltimore's canneries as children. I too am of Polish descent and these women were similar in age and social position to my mother's older sisters. In interview after interview, as we talked about the narrator's life as an immigrant daughter and working-class wife, her experiences as a casual laborer in an industry notorious for low wages and unpleasant working conditions, the narrator would blurt out with great force, "You have no idea how hard we had it!", often rapping her finger on a table for emphasis. I had become a representative of the generation of the narrator's own children, who indeed have no idea how hard their parents and grandparents had it; what began as an interview thus became an impassioned conversation across the generations.