Oral history can refer to formal, rehearsed accounts of the past presented by culturally sanctioned tradition-bearers; informal conversations about “the old days” among family members, neighbors, or coworkers; printed compilations of stories told about past and present experiences; and recorded interviews with individuals deemed to have an important story to tell. The term has value in each of these contexts. The spoken word has taught most people about history. History-conscious people have preserved others’ firsthand stories of the past for generations, often at the point when the historical players and their memories were about to pass away.
Thus, oral history began with Allan Nevins’ 1940s Columbia University effort. While writing a history of President Grover Cleveland, he found that Cleveland’s associates left few letters, diaries, and memoirs. The telephone was replacing personal correspondence, and the bureaucratization of public affairs was standardizing the paper trail. To enhance the written record, Nevins proposed interviewing recent participants.
To sum up, oral history is a self-conscious, disciplined discourse between two people about a historical event that they consciously document. Oral history is a dialogue, even though it takes the form of an interview in which the interviewer asks the interviewee or narrator questions. The interviewer’s questions, based on a certain frame of reference or historical interest, elicit certain responses from the narrator, based on that person’s perception of what is essential or what they think is important to inform the interviewer. The narrator’s reaction informs the interviewer’s next questions, and so on.
According to Alessandro Portelli, one of oral history’s most profound 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 contact in the interview.” Perceptive inquiries work and rework a topic, helping the narrator to remember specifics, clarifying what is unclear, finding links among seemingly disconnected recollections, questioning discrepancies, and eliciting evaluations of what it all meant then and now. The finest interviewers listen intently to the narrator’s intent and then ask the tough questions.184