The History of Oral History

 

Oral history or oral culture is a term often used in anthropology to describe the way in which illiterate peoples remember and transmit their history. These stories are characterised by a strong interrelation between history and mythology, and by the important role played by heroism and morality.

 

Oral history

Since the 1990s, organisations such as Unesco have been pointing out the importance of having an eye and ear for intangible cultural heritage, non-tangible but very vital sources of culture and identity for groups of people. This also includes the oral histories of underrepresented groups in Western society.

 

 

 

Folk tales

An example of oral history in this sense is the book Indaba my Children, published in 1964, by the Zulu writer and Vusamazoeloe Credo Mutwa, in which, in order to understand the clash between black and white and South Africa, he tells the story of the origin of the peoples and their history, as passed on from generation to generation in oral tradition by the Zulus in Southern Africa.

 

 

Eyewitness

As early as 1853, the French historian Jules Michelet used eyewitness interviews to write his book Histoire de la Révolution Française. This way of working provided him with information that he could never glean from the official reports and statistics. In the 1920s, W.I. Thomas and F. Znancieki conducted a pioneering study of the emigration of Polish peasants to the United States, using ego documents such as letters and diaries. During this period, similar research was carried out into slavery, the migration to the West and the history of the Indians.

 

 

The concept of oral history

In 1968, the British historian Paul Thompson published the book The Voice of the Past, Oral History. This book is one of the first works in which the concept of oral history is elaborated. It has since appeared in many printings and translations.

In the Netherlands, the concept of oral history only really came into use after the Second World War. In the early fifties Ben Sijes does research on the February Strike. Because the written sources on this subject are inaccurate and incomplete, he decides to interview people who experienced the strike.

 

Underexposed history

The great breakthrough came in the 1960s. Prompted by the idea of democratisation and the wave of emancipation, there was more interest in groups that remained largely underexposed in written history, such as workers and women.

In the Netherlands, the Vereniging voor Historische Mondelinge Documentatie (Association for Historical Oral Documentation) was founded in 1979, headed by historian Selma Leydesdorff. This association was active until 1990, and in September 2010, it was given a belated restart as the National Working Group on Oral History, housed at the Huizinga Institute. It is mainly initiatives from the women’s movement that give a strong impetus to the development of the oral history method, because the history of women and their contribution to society can only be partially traced through the ordinary method of historiography.

 

In the literature

In recent years, oral history has increasingly found its way into Dutch literature. A book like Het zwijgen van Maria Zachea by Judith Koelemeijer, which tells the history of a certain North-Holland family on the basis of individual stories, is a bestseller. In 2010, the book Congo by Flemish writer David van Reybrouck, based on oral history, won the AKO Literature Prize.

 

Internet

Oral history is also receiving a great deal of attention on the Internet. The website Witness stories, http://getuigenverhalen.nl, is a collection of all projects and interviews conducted within the framework of the Heritage of War – a programme of the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport. An example of a website that unlocks the stories of migrants in particular is “Five Centuries of Migration” by the Centre for Migration History:

https://vijfeeuwenmigratie.nl/ .

 

An additional effect of the use of the Internet in the development of oral history is that this medium also invites people who would normally find it difficult to go to archives and libraries, to delve into the subject and the sources.