In researching the past, historians use a wide range of primary source materials. Many of these, such as newspapers, diaries, letters, books, and reports, are textual, while others, including photographs, drawings, video recordings, clothing, coins, and architecture, are not. Oral history is a method of historical research that draws upon the memories of living individuals whose experiences can tell us more about the past. Researchers conduct interviews with these individuals in an effort to discover information that might not be found through more conventional sources.
Because oral history relies on the memories of living people, its use is limited to more recent history. As audio and video recording technologies have been developed, however, more interviews have been recorded and archived for future research. The main purpose of this guide is to direct students and researchers to some of the local, national, and international oral history archives that have been developed in recent years.
When using oral history resources or conducting interviews yourself, it is helpful to keep in mind the particular strengths and limitations of oral history. Interviews can be an invaluable source for learning about the perceptions and everyday activities of those who were not especially wealthy or powerful and may not have left a record of their past. For this reason, oral history is a popular method of research for social historians and other scholars who study marginalized groups. On the other hand, memory is far from infallible and is often affected by later experiences. It is always best to support oral history research with other kinds of sources.