The oral tradition of storytelling and its role in history

Within families and communities there will be stories that have been passed down through the generations, some of which may have been written, but many of which will have been passed down by word of mouth. This is all part of an oral tradition of storytelling which predates written literature. However, there are also stories which can be told and shared right now—stories which are in the living memory of members of our own families and the wider community. 

A recorded oral history is more than just a quote on a page in a book. It is a meaningful story expressed by the person who owns that story.
             Doug Boyd

We are all natural story tellers. We tell stories all the time without even realising it. Whether it’s just chatting with friends about what we have been up to or sharing a laugh in the pub.

Storytelling is part of our heritage

Although most people have an instinctive ability to tell stories, not everyone feels able or willing to write these stories down. This presents you with the perfect opportunity to take advantage of our great oral tradition of storytelling by recording the memories and experiences of family, friends and other people in your community. Just look around and you will discover that there are many people who are only too happy to talk about their own lives and reminisce about the past. These stories are unique and are a very important part of our heritage. Historical books and documents  focus on the famous and rich and the major events in history but the stories told by ‘ordinary’ people about their everyday lives and experiences are also a vital part of our history if we don’t preserve these memories they will be lost forever.

Oral history also has an important role to play in capturing and recording the memories and experiences of people who might otherwise not have the chance to have their voices heard. For example, people from minority and marginalised groups and people from smaller communities whose experiences are often overlooked and are therefore hidden from the accepted versions of history.

Oral history embraces all generations

Although oral histories are often seen as a way of capturing and preserving the memories of older people, interviewing and recording the experiences and opinions of younger generations is just as important. In the future all of these recordings will provide a window into the past based on first-hand evidence and knowledge.

How people remember

Because we all remember different things in different ways, even memories of the same event by two people, can vary. However, this doesn’t make one more valid than the other. Our memories are a combination of facts and opinions and our own interpretations and perceptions, so stories will differ— just be prepared, if necessary, to take them at face value.

Planning an oral history interview