Abstract: The Rise of Oral Histories

Hello, my name is Mason Davis. I’m currently a Junior at William and Mary and am majoring in History. This summer I will be conducting research in order to answer the question “What caused oral histories to increase in number and use from 1930 to present?”

A quick explanation of oral histories. Oral histories are experiences that an individual has had that they, along with an interviewer, choose to record. Oral histories take a question and answer format where the interviewer tries to guide the narrative while affecting the narrator’s view of events as little as possible. As a point of clarification, people often think that the myths and histories of a culture that are transmitted orally from generation to generation are oral histories. These are called oral traditions, and are not part of my research.

I’ve identified three major periods of growth in the number and use of oral histories: the years immediately prior and following WWII, the late 1960s into the early 1970s, and the late 1990s. While oral histories were recorded outside of these periods of time, each of these periods exhibited a drastic increase in the number of oral histories being recorded, and/or the ease by which they could be accessed.

In the years immediately prior and following WWII the National Archive, Columbia University archive, and University of Texas archive began creating oral history collections. During this period, the Federal Writers’ Project was created to record the narratives of former slaves. Following WWII, hundreds of soldier narratives were housed in the National archive, many of which had been recorded on the battlefield just days after D-Day.

An incredible rise in the number of oral histories recorded occurs between about 1968-1973. At Columbia University, UCLA, UC Berkeley, and even at William and Mary, there is a drastic increase in the number of oral histories recorded. UCLA and UC Berkeley, which had been recording occasional oral histories since the 1950s, begin large, planned oral history collections. Columbia University archive became an early adopter of the portable tape recorder which allowed interviewers to become more mobile and record the narratives of poor individuals in the city of New York. These recordings were part of the rise of social history in the early 1970s, and played a prominent role in the rise of oral histories as legitimate forms of historical evidence.

Finally, I will look at the development of technologies in the late 1990s that allowed for large audio files to be created and stored digitally, and how they came to be used for oral histories. Collections such as Columbia’s Butler Library, UCLA’s community oral histories, and the National archive began digitizing interviews by recording interviews in a new digital format, as well as beginning the long process of digitizing tape recorded interviews. Inventions such as the digital recorder and internet revolutionized the ways oral histories could be stored and shared from physical archives to digital ones that can be accessed across the world, as well as have changed the types of people recording oral histories from mostly academics to primarily amateurs.

Thank you for reading. I’m looking forward to conducting this research, as well as recording the progress on this blog so all of you may follow my progress.