Why is oral history preservation important?

Why is it important that we don’t lose this method of recording history?

Throughout this post, we will answer these questions and leave room for thought on how technology can aid in our quest for preserving oral history for the future.



What is oral history?

Oral History is when memories of the past have been passed on verbally.

Throughout the history of the world, we have lost so many incredible stories that would have originally been told orally.


Take the Vikings for example. Most of the Viking stories, myths and legends we know of today would only have been told orally through their culture, passed down memories from generation to generation. Tales were told across the centuries of the Norse gods, Scandinavian origins, laws, myths, culture, and famous raids.

The Vikings didn’t keep written records of their lives. The Sagas we know of today are retold accounts written by the Anglo-Saxon Christians some 200-300 years later.


The purpose of oral history is to document the stories of individuals who are usually neglected or glanced over in written historic events. Through oral history, we get to fill the gaps in history giving us a personable account of history, which becomes easier empathise with.


Origins of oral history and oral history preservation

Oral history preservation is the recorded tales of historic people, events and their history through either video interviews, or audio to be kept for historic records.

The documentation of Western oral material began with the ancient Greek historians. Herodotus,  known as  “The Father of History,” and Thucydides “The father of scientific history” made extensive documents from witnesses’ oral reports. Much of the stories documented by these Greek historians have since been confirmed by historians and archaeologists.

American historian and journalist Allan Nevins is considered to be the inventor of recorded oral history at Columbia University in the 1940s. He was the first among his kind to create a system of recording on tape, preserving and making the recordings available for future research and recollections of historical significance.

Much of his oral history revolves around interviewing the ‘elite’, prominent leaders and businessmen of the era to supplement with written records.


Importance of oral history

Let’s talk about oral history in the context of our personal lives.

So much of our personal family history is not written down. We hear tales from great-grandparents passed down through to grandparents and our own parents, but these stories are told orally.

How much of the family legends have been altered, enhanced, details omitted or even mistold? We don’t tend to keep a written record of family stories and after a few generations, our beloved family tales are forever lost.


For the sake of our heritage, bloodlines, and our future progeny we need to be capturing and preserving our family’s rich history through written and maybe possibly more importantly- recorded oral stories.


Why is it important to preserve oral history?

Why is the preservation of our ancestors’ memories important to us? It’s quite simple, the memories of our ancestors give us the opportunity to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

This is important as knowing their stories helps us better understand who we are.

The blood of our ancestors runs through us. Our parents, grandparents, great- grandparents, great-great-grandparents and so on for generations and generations all live on through us today.

That means their skills, perseverance, knowledge and life experience is also inside us.


Take a moment to let that sink in.


It’s important to understand our heritage and the people who live on inside us through their personal stories. Through their hardships, triumphs and daily lives we can feel inspired and draw strength.

All the challenges of our ancestors and the strength it took to overcome them have been passed on into us.

Take the time to listen to your grandmother’s stories of how her family lived through the war. Not only should these stories inspire you, but they should make you proud of who you are today. Their history is your history.


Advantages of oral history

With oral history, the emotion and body language are not lost. In many ways, you get a true and accurate tale of events first hand.

Capturing the emotion in stories

Written documentation is not as effective as capturing the emotion and feeling that can be observed in oral history.

Many museums use digital recordings to interview living survivors on their perspective of historic events.

Usually, these accounts hold more emotion, as you can read body language, tone of voice and facial expression to accompany the story.

I personally will never forget the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Japan. Upon first entering the museum you are met with a loop video of all the living survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bomb dropping of 1945. The accounts are of now elderly people who were affected as children. You hear first hand their horrific tales, the emotion they felt and the memories scarred into their minds forever. The power of the video interview is so strong that you aren’t likely to see a dry eye in the deathly quiet room.


Disadvantages of oral history

Oral history can have disadvantages too. People can remember events differently to actual events based on bias, exaggeration or suppression.

Citing oral history is not as easy as using an index or table on contents as in written records. For example, to jump to a certain point in the interview, you typically have to watch or listen to the whole recording to find the information you want to record or cite.

Sadly, if you’ve not got relatives alive who have information about your family history, then their knowledge is lost with them if they didn’t make a record of it. The disadvantages of recording oral history is that you need living family members to tell their tales.

If you have elderly grandparents or parents alive, seize the opportunity. Pick up the phone and chat about your family history before it’s too late.


The re-emergence of oral history

For a large part of Western history, the written recording of history has dominated. Scholars dismissed oral testimonies as non-legitimate accounts, as written words have held more value and accuracy as historical evidence in modern history.

Largely thanks to the life work of British historian Paul Thompson, oral history has re-emerged.

In his book, The Voice of the Past, Paul has made scholars and historians reconsider the legitimacy of oral history as historical evidence, by putting a focus on the individual people at the centre of the investigation.

His book, ‘The Voice of the Past’ has in itself become a manifesto for a new wave of historians wanting to expand and democratize history from the pens of professors to the mouths of the people.

In 1971 Thompson founded the Oral History Society, which led to the first British national oral history interview study to be carried out titled, ‘Family Life and Work Experience before 1918’. Thompson then went on to found the National Life Story Collection (now National Life Stories), which aims to record first hard experiences across as much of present-day society as possible. Stored in the British Library National Sound Archive in London.

In 1996, the International Oral History Association (IOHA) was founded, representing international oral historians.

The movement to save the traditional countryside living

The remaking of oral history has been massively influenced by the movement to capture the fast disappearing countryside traditions, especially in Scotland and Wales. The 1950s gave way to the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University and the Welsh Folk Museum as a way to record minority Gaelic speakers. This gave rise to the Folklore studies and in particular the recorded preservation of dialect and linguistic studies.

We then saw the rise of the oral recordings of the British working class, as it was noticed large swathes of the population were missing from formal history. With deficient written records of the British working class prior to 1960, historians were inspired to record the recollections of older members of the ‘labouring classes’.

Hence the emergence of the Oral History Society soon after.


Ways to record and preserve oral history

Preserving oral history is especially important for genealogical work. Especially when these involve personal intangible memories.

Many genealogists use interviews to capture the life stories of living relatives. These can be video recorded or audio recorded.

The British Library oral history collection has a whole archive of interviews of people life stories from a huge cross-section of the British public. Thanks to National Life Stories, all these interviews are publicly available and can help genealogists a great deal when wanting to find out more about their family history. Each interview covers the family background, childhood, education, work, leisure, and later life.


How to interview someone for their life story

The best life story interviews are led by the interviewer, but allow a pause for thought and storytelling to be recited by the narrator. The interviewer should encourage the narrator to remember details, make connections across their life events and even the courage to ask hard questions.

We have written a great post on the types of questions to ask when interviewing someone’s life story. You can find the post here: Family history interview questions.

All interviews must be conducted with a purpose. For a successful recording, you need to figure out the purpose of the interview. What point are you trying to reach? What stories do you want to tell? What message do you want for your future families?


Using a family tree interview app

Luckily with the advancements in technology, we can easily record and preserve the oral history of our living family members at any time and any place.

You don’t need expensive recording and lighting equipment to get started. By downloading a family history interviewing app onto your smartphone, preserving oral history has never been easier.

The Reliving App allows you to not only record interviews via video or audio, but you can also preserve the recording in a family tree map. You can find out more details about the interviewing and preserving feature of the Reliving app here.


In order to understand ourselves better, we need to view ourselves as one with our ancestors and our future progeny. The actions of our ancestors shaped our lives today, and the actions we take today, shape the path for our future children and their children.

All of our stories are important to our lives today. We have a duty to learn the past and more so to record our stories for the future. We typically can only really go back three generations of oral history. Sadly the memories and personal stories of our ancestors before this time are now lost to us.

It doesn’t stop with you. Make sure you record your own life story to be passed onto your future families. Get your children involved and make the interviewing of relatives part of your family culture. Your progeny will be thankful for the hard work you put in today.