Oral history, which is gradually taking hold as an academic discipline, captures potentially hidden corners of the historical record by listening to those whose voices might otherwise have been ignored.
“Oral history provides a big challenge to the people who are powerful, including historians, who think that they should get to decide whose stories are being told and what counts as evidence,” says Wesley Hogan, director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, in the United States, perhaps the best-established academic institute in the discipline.
In the Arab world, where official histories often reflect political viewpoints, oral history has taken on an increasingly important role, scholars say. Rosemary Sayigh, a retired faculty member at the American University of Beirut who has used oral history to record the stories of dispossessed Palestinians, says oral history has particular value in recording the status and experiences of women, agricultural and industrial workers, linguistic minorities, colonized societies, immigrants, refugees, and gypsies.
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“The most powerful thing oral history does is force the researcher to look the subject in the eye—forcing the historian to be an ethnographer, actually sitting face to face with the narrator, listening to their voice and sensing their emotions and body language,” says Hana Sleiman, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge and manager of a Palestinian Oral History Archive at the American University of Beirut. “It puts you in contact with the entire life narrative.”
The U.S.-based Oral History Association describes the field as gathering, preserving, and interpreting the narratives of people, communities, and participants in past events. The discipline is the oldest form of documenting history, dating back to times when sharing stories was the only form of creating a historical record. At the same time, it is one of the most modern means of documenting history, expanding with the use of tape recorders.
Oral history as an academic sub-discipline was first established in the mid-1960s. “For a long time in the 1940s and 1950s, there was just not enough access to equipment,” says Hogan, at Duke. “We did not have access to portable tape recorders until 1963.”
One of the earliest uses of oral history by scholars was at Spelman College, a historically black institution for women in Atlanta, Georgia. Academics would take portable tape recorders to civil-rights movement meetings in the mid-1960s to record discussions and interview participants. Despite the clear value of having such on-the-spot recordings, many historians at the time viewed them with suspicion.
“Even though historians started to use [portable tape recorders] in the early ’60s, most history departments only started to admit oral history as evidence in the late 1970s, so it took a very long time for historians to be willing to accept oral history as evidence, comparable to evidence material, such as journals or written documentation,” added Hogan.