What is oral history?
At its very basic definition, oral history is when people talk about the past. It therefore overlaps to some extent with other disciplines such as journalism, therapy and even job interviews. However, it also has to be recorded, and it involves talking about things at some length and in some depth, thus it is set apart from other forms of narrative.
In essence, oral histories are a process for recording and preserving first-hand information in a structured interview setting, as well as making the story available to others. Each interview is a snapshot of a particular period or event, and is shared based on the individual’s memory of those events, biases and other influences.
Why do we do oral histories?
By undertaking oral histories, we help people to remember certain items from their past. Often, these are stories they’ve told over a very long period, thus they’ve perfected them over the years into an art form.
There are many benefits to oral histories:
- they can give pleasure to the speaker
- they provide a personal perspective
- they allow us to record stories before they are lost
- they convey a level of emotional depth that is normally left out of convental history
- they allow access to information that is not likely to be written down
- they allow people to understand themselves and their own lives better
- they provide individual voices which tell of social class, age, geographical origins, educational background, level of humour, health and dialect
- they tell the ‘day to day’ history, rather than only focusing on well-known figures
Oral history as a discipline
Up until much of the 19th and early 20th century, history was about those in power, and focused on such things as monarchies, legislation and wars – thus it was a political, rather than a social history. Novelists at this time (such as Dickens) and social investigators (such as Henry Mayhew and Charles Booth) were interested in the day-to-day life of the past, feeding into social science, but not enough focus was made into these snapshots of daily life.
Oral history arose from the need to get the story behind the snapshot, collecting narrative that made sense of the moment. When it truly began to take off, it was largely undertaken by ordinary people. thus it moved away from only being the people in power writing about history.
Tillingbourne Tales and oral histories
The project is working hard to gather stories from those living along the valley, to collect their tales before they are lost. So often, people do not realize how valuable their own memories are, but we want to encourage them to take part and allow their stories to captured, before it is too late.
All oral histories have been collected and shared with the consent of the interviewee, and are archived with the project.
Please contact us to express your interest in either being interviewed, or being trained to help with the interview process.
For more about oral histories, follow up with the Oral History Society and the British Library. Albury History Society also have a substantial collection of recordings, as does the Surrey History Centre.