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What is the difference between oral history and traditional written history?

by | Oct 15, 2009 | Fall 2009, Q & A

Jeannie Whayne, professor of history, replies:

Perhaps the most important difference between oral history and traditional history is the personal nature of the former. Oral history typically involves interviews with individuals who either tell their life stories or focus on a certain aspect of their history. In the latter case, they might focus on their involvement in a particularly important historical event, such as their association with the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, or on a specific period time, such as their experiences on the home front during World War II. Oral history is often one person’s point of view, unless someone gathers a series of interviews on the same issue together in a volume. As a source of information, oral histories, since they rely on the memories of individuals, have to be used selectively and their facts checked carefully.

A traditional written history, by contrast, uses a variety of sources, which may include oral interviews, government reports, newspaper articles, letters, diaries and personal papers. It is generally written from the third person, adopting a scholarly voice and an analytical approach. Historians writing traditional history cite their sources, which establishes both authority and credibility. Although not meant to appeal to a general audience, some traditional histories, particularly biographies of important political figures like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, are widely read.

Oral history is an important component of traditional history and can provide a personal angle to a more general narrative.

David A. Jolliffe, professor of English and Brown Chair in English Literacy, replies:

Given that the University of Arkansas has a department full of outstanding historians in Old Main, one might wonder why a person like me, with three degrees in English and 33 years of experience teaching students about reading and writing, is being asked to distinguish “traditional” history from “oral history.” The reason is this: While I have the love of an amateur for traditional history, as captured in such primary documents as letters, journals, and maps, as well as in well-written scholarship, I have found in oral history a superb vehicle for fostering literacy, for getting people in all walks of life to understand how reading and writing enrich their lives and communities.

Simply put, oral history is a method: a way of gathering information from people who come into contact with history, who have lived through events or periods and are willing to reflect on not only what happened but also how they experienced what happened. In the Arkansas Delta Oral History Project, which the Brown Chair in English Literacy Initiative has conducted for the past three years, university students will work with Delta high school students to capture the legend and lore of Delta communities using oral history. In the Augusta Community Literacy Advocacy Project, citizens of that small Woodruff County town have used oral history to write a book of stories about military veterans, and members of several churches are using oral history to honor the contributions of long-time members, the pillars of the church. For these Arkansans, oral history brings reading and writing to life.

black and white image of a woman at an old typewriter






















Mary Parler, founder of the University of Arkansas Folklore Research Project, and her assistants interviewed hundreds of Arkansans in the 1950s and early 1960s, collecting ballads, tales and other cultural information. They recorded 442 reels of audiotape, all fully transcribed, an invaluable resource for historians and linguists.

Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville.


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