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Capturing the Living Past: An Oral History Primer

1. Introduction

Who should use this oral history primer?

Anyone who wants to learn the basics of planning and carrying out a single oral history interview or a larger oral history project will find this primer useful. It will help you with oral history work for your family, for a museum or archives, for a school, or for any other purpose you have in mind.

But keep in mind: This primer only scratches the surface of the information available for learning about oral history. See the resources listed in Section 11 for more information.

So what exactly IS oral history?

Oral historians define "oral history" as a process that includes these elements:

You mean just reminiscing with Grandma about the old days isn't oral history?

Not strictly speaking, no. Neither is reading aloud from an old diary, or turning on a tape recorder at your family reunion and asking people to recall past experiences. All of those things might be interesting, but they lack the systematic, planned interview that will yield in-depth information historians and others will find useful in the future.

Besides, many repositories that collect, preserve, and catalog oral histories and make them accessible to others - like libraries and historical societies - generally will not want to add recordings to their holdings that do not meet the characteristics listed above. Recordings that don't meet those criteria may be rejected as incomplete, of limited historical value, of limited use, and difficult to preserve.


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