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Oral History Research Guide

A compilation of resources on what oral history is, how to do oral history, and how to locate oral history interviews.

How To Use This Guide

This guide is for people who want to learn more about oral history. You will find information and resources in this guide on the following:

  • How to conduct oral history interviews for personal reasons or for research purposes.
  • How to locate and use oral history interviews available in the Mansfield Library's Archives and Special Collections.
  • How to find information about oral history programs and projects in Montana, the U.S. and the world.

What Is Oral History

Oral history is an audio or video recording of a first-person, spoken account of someone's life history, a particular event, or a particular topic to help future generations gain a better understanding of the past. Oral history interviews contribute to the historical record. As primary sources, they reflect the personal (subjective) opinions of the interviewee.  Oral histories are not considered comprehensive, final, or objective, and may be used in conjunction with other primary and secondary sources to gain a better understanding of history.

As little as 40 years ago, many historians did not value oral histories or see them as valid primary sources. The reasoning varied but historians often cited the subjectivity of the interviews and the fact that the interviewees were rarely experts or trained observers. By the early 1970s, recognition for cultural studies, with a particular focus on the voices and experiences of everyday people, began to take hold across the humanities and social sciences. As the focus of historians has broadened, increasing historical emphasis has been placed on the “common” people and other groups, large and small, rendered voiceless by traditional historical methodology.

One of the most influential oral historians in U.S. history was Studs Terkel, who interviewed thousands of people.

Man with cigar in mouth

Terkel's focus on everyday people gave voice to individuals such as Native Americans,
war veterans, laborers, and people who lived through the Great Depression to
preserve 20th century U.S. history. He published a number of books featuring his
oral history interviews,
including Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression.
Terkel's catalog of interviews is available online through the Studs Terkel Radio Archive.

Learn More About Oral History

Oral History Standards and Ethics

Principles and Best Practices for Oral History

Oral history principles and best practices as defined by the Oral History  Association describe what oral history is, what standards oral historians should follow when recording the stories of others, and what ethical issues are associated with the practice of oral history.

Oral History in the Digital Age

This website provides a wealth of information on how to conduct oral history interviews in today's digital age. The site features essays from professional oral historians on a variety of topics including collection, curation, and dissemination as well as a list of best practices for digital oral histories.

Oral History Organizations

Oral History Association

Founded in 1966, the Oral History Association is the principle membership organization for people interested in and practicing oral history.

International Oral History Association

Founded in 1996, the International Oral History Association serves as a forum for oral historians around the world.

Oral History Listserv: H-Oralhist

Affiliated with the Oral History Association, H-Oralhist is a digital network for oral historians and those interested in oral history to post queries, discussions and responses related to oral history topics. 

Oral History Journals

The Oral History Review

The official journal of the Oral History Association. This peer-reviewed journal features articles about the practice of oral history.

Words and Silences

The official, online journal of the International Oral History Association. This journal is peer-reviewed and features articles on a wide variety of oral history topics and issues.

Land Acknowledgement

The University of Montana acknowledges that we are in the aboriginal territories of the Salish and Kalispel people. We honor the path they have always shown us in caring for this place for the generations to come.