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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

Oral History

The undertaking of oral history is an attempt to record, on tape or other media, the ideas, experiences, and impressions of persons who might not otherwise leave any written record. It is an important tool for primary research in local history, community and ethnocultural history or other historical research that values the importance of individual experience and perception. Oral history uses and adds to existing information about historical events and other aspects of "official" history. It has been particularly important in the writing of histories about marginalized individuals and communities including Aboriginal, gender, class and ethnic histories.

The recollections of individuals have been important in historical research since time immemorial. However, oral history research, generally speaking, has a larger scope and intent. For example, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the US in the 1930s initiated a project whereby interviewers went out to seek first-hand accounts from individuals on a variety of historically-significant events. This was a "make work" project of the Dirty Thirties that also saw architects and draftsmen go out to record information on historic buildings. The Library of Congress has also undertaken a range of projects.

In the latter part of the 20th century, oral history has become a vehicle for understanding cultural memory and living traditions - all of those aspects of life that help define identity and create a sense of place. Although an interview cannot capture everything that a person knows, it can capture part of a person's life experience and fill gaps in our written historical knowledge. Oral histories may not be historically accurate because people's memories are imperfect and may also be influenced by wish fulfillment and desire for certain things to be so. Having said this, they have an immediacy and vibrancy that is lacking in the formal recounting of events.

Oral history is a process that aids in the reconstruction of the past and in preserving and documenting culture. It is an extension of the art of storytelling. In this sense, everyone has an oral history - an account of where we come from and how we got to be who we are. Communities, also, each have an oral history. So, too, do nations, families, and human organizations of every sort. Oral histories can help to accomplish many purposes including:

  • Serves as a link from the immediate present to the immediate past in a very understandable and human way
  • Fills an information gap when less and less information and reflections are recorded in written form
  • Provides a natural opportunity to obtain information related to ordinary people
  • Provides an opportunity to "experience" history firsthand
  • Places local history within the overall context of a national history
  • Increases understanding of a specific historical event
  • Chronicles the traditional skills and values of many different groups
  • Affirms community and common purpose, employs evaluation/reflection
  • Produces a source of pride and identity
  • Creates understanding that bridges generations
  • Tries to capture in sufficient detail meaningful characteristics of a past that might otherwise be lost

There are various local, regional, national and international organizations that foster this research and also provide guidance to ensure as far as is possible that the research is undertaken in an ethical fashion. The International Council of Museums (ICOM), which is a part of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), has developed Resolution 11, which provides guidance as to conduct of research with living groups, in particular, indigenous peoples. UNESCO wished to balance the protection of the tangible heritage (artifacts, documents and records) with the protection of the intangible cultural heritage. Oral history is a vehicle for documenting and preserving oral tradition, which is particularly important for indigenous people throughout the world. In an oral tradition, each community member preserves an aspect of the community's shared knowledge. The intent is to formalize practice and ensure that individuals being interviewed fully understand the process and intent of the interviewer and also that they give approval or direction for the ways in which their interviews may be used. This must take a written form.

Resource Publications

Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, Getting Started in Oral Traditions Research, text: Elisa hart and Illustrations: Wally Wolfe, Occasional Papers of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, No. 4, 1995

Resource Websites:

The following Albertasource.ca - the Alberta Online Encyclopedia - websites include oral histories:

Alberta: How The West Was Young

Alberta: How The West Was Young

Join us as we discover the early history of Alberta going back 11,000 years. The site explores Aboriginal history from the Pre-Contact Era through to the Fur Trade and the Métis-the people who bridged the Old and New Worlds.

Making of Treaty 8

Making of Treaty 8 in Canada's Northwest

This virtual exhibit explores the making of Treaty 8 through text, historic photographs, audio, video and contextual information, as well as exploring the culture and lifeways of First Nations people.

Nature's Laws

Nature's Laws

Experience the culture and traditions of the First Nation People with Nature's Laws - a website describing aboriginal views on the governance of life.

Elder's Voices

Elders' Voices

They are the ones who remember. They are the keepers of knowledge, and the living memories of ancient cultures. They are the Elders of Alberta's Aboriginal communities. Read and hear the stories of the Elders in Elders' Voices, a multimedia testament to the resilience of those who have struggled to keep the old world from being completely swept away by the new.

People of the Boreal Forest Edukit

People of the Boreal Forest Edukit

The People of the Boreal Forest Edukit developed by the Heritage Community Foundation. This Edukit is intended to provide a range of information and activities that highlight and promote an understanding of the People who live and work in the Boreal Forest region of Alberta. In the Teacher Zone, you will find Boreal Forest-specific lesson plans dealing with the Forest, its People, and its Traditions. The Student Zone contains photographs, audio and video samples, textual information, and various activities dealing with the topics above.

Alberta's Black Pioneer Heritage

Pioneering People
Alberta's Black Pioneer Heritage dates back to the mid-19th century. The Black pioneers' story is one of perseverance and courage, brought to life through the Alberta's Black Pioneer Heritage Web site, developed by the Heritage Community Foundation in partnership with the Black Pioneer Descendants' Society.

Alberta's Estonian Heritage

Alberta's Estonian Heritage
Travel back in time or look at modern Estonian communities through archival photographs, family biographies, community profiles, and stories. Discover the stories of flight from repression to homesteading and community building. Learn about the history, people and culture of Alberta's Estonian communities by visiting the Alberta's Estonian Heritage Web Site, developed by the Heritage Community Foundation and the Alberta Estonian Heritage Society.

Alberta's Francophone Heritage

Alberta's Francophone Heritage
Francophone Alberta is important historically, politically, economically, culturally and socially. Discover more through Alberta's Francophone Heritage and its telling of individual and community stories from the era of the fur trade to contemporary Francophone communities confidently embracing the future.

Celebrating Alberta's Italian Community

Celebrating Alberta's Italian Community
Immigrants from Italy began to come to Western Canada in the 1880s to work on the railways and in the mines. Explore the settlement history, culture, traditions, achievements and contributions of Italian-Canadians. The site includes profiles of individuals and organizations, photo albums as well as discussions of painful issues such as discrimination and internment

Alberta's Telephone Heritage

Alberta's Telephone Heritage
From Alex Taylor to Telus Communications, this site looks at the technology of the telephone and celebrates its development in Alberta. Oral histories, Heritage Trails, and a searchable database let visitors really explore Alberta's telephone heritage.

Edmonton's Francophone Heritage

Francophone Edmonton Online - Edmonton's Francophone Heritage
The French presence in what became Alberta goes back to the earliest period of the fur trade. Edmonton was the heart of that presence. This website documents and explores Edmonton's unique, historic role as Western Canada's second-largest Francophone city (next to Saint-Boniface, Manitoba). Discover Francophone Edmonton through the pages of this dynamic website.

"Oral History" entry from Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oral_history.
Retrieved, March 5, 2009.

Immigration: The Living Mosaic of People, Culture and Hope
This website has been developed by Ellis Island, a US historic site that documents and interprets immigration history, personal stories of both immigrants and workers at Ellis Island, and a discussion of The Statue of Liberty.

Gathering the Forgotten Voices: An Approach to Oral History
Introduction to oral history procedures such as interview techniques, etc.

Institute for Oral History at Baylor University
Oral history workshop: definition or oral history, ethical/legal considerations, equipment selection, interviewing tips, interview do's/don'ts, transcribing and uses of oral history interviews.

Miscellaneous Oral History Resources
This site has been developed by the Centre for the Study of History and Memory, Indiana University. Resourcesdemonstrate the use of oral history, suggest strategies for conducting oral histories, or probe the issues around oral history as a research methodology.

American Life Histories
This is a collection of oral biographies collected by the Federal Writer's Project during the Great Depression and was developed by the Library of Congress.

Voices of the Holocaust
A documentary project by the Illinois Institute for Technology. Contains an interview archive, profiles, featured interviews, biographies and other resources.

Oral History Online: Suffragists Oral History Project
Interviews with twelve leaders and participants in the woman's suffrage movement.

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