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Making the Most of Memories: The Empirical and Subjective Value of Oral History

By Al Thomson


Oral history, defined by Ronald Grele as ‘the interviewing of eyewitness participants in the events of the past for the purposes of historical reconstruction’, is an invaluable and compelling research method for twentieth-century history. It provides access to undocumented experience, including the life of civic leaders who have not yet written their autobiographies and, more significantly, the ‘hidden histories’ of people on the margins: workers, women, indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities and members of other oppressed or marginalised groups. Oral history interviews also provide opportunities to explore particular aspects of historical experience that are rarely recorded, such as personal relationships, domestic life, and the nature of clandestine organisations. They offer rich evidence about the subjective or personal meanings of past events: what it felt like to get married, to be under fire, to face death in a concentration camp. Oral historians are unique in being able to question their informants, to ask the questions that might not have been imagined in the past and to evoke recollections and understandings that were previously silenced or ignored. We enjoy the pleasures – as well as the considerable challenges – of engaging in active, human relationships in the course of our research

Publisher: Royal Historical Society
Year: 1999
DOI identifier: 10.2307/3679406
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