Worldwide Applications: For centuries, civilizations and communities across the globe have used talking, singing, and speechmaking to pass down knowledge, history, genealogy, spiritual practices, customs, and lore from one generation to the next. Even though written languages have existed since the time of the Egyptians, most cultures have long traditions of using oral methods to preserve their history and way of life. Some cultural communities whose spoken languages have no written counterpart continue to rely solely on this "word of mouth" tradition to keep their history, religious rituals, legal practices, agricultural techniques, and recipes alive. From the folk tales of the Philippines to the songs and dances of the American Indians, from the great Finnish Kalevala epics to the stories of resistance and struggle in South Africa, oral traditions enhance and animate our understanding of history and people around the world.

Oral traditions have survived and flourished because of careful listening, thoughtful memorization and more recently due to the efforts of others to record them-be it with pencil and paper or through the use of a recording device. By making efforts to record "oral histories," we are working to document our experience and the experience of others. This idea has roots as ancient as cave paintings and Egyptian cuneiform.

Haakon, Aaron, and Shirley Karuzas, Yaak Valley residents; father is a salvage logger
Incorporated color coupler print
© Terry Evans 1999


In the United States: The colonists who conquered North America and formed the United States brought with them a keen interest in oral histories. Each colony had its own historian who documented accounts of the settlement experience by talking with settlers and reading diaries, ships' logs, and personal memoirs. Later, the use of "oral evidence" was less valued by historians who preferred to concentrate their studies on written sources, such as letters, journals, and newspapers.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, there was a resurgence of interest in oral histories. Many historians, anthropologists, ethnologists, and folklorists were concerned that advances in technology would devastate many traditional cultures. They also recognized that political and social changes such as the end of slavery and massive immigration were important historical occurrences that needed to be documented. In the late 1800s, many anthropologists and ethnologists obtained government support to interview, photograph, and record the indigenous languages and traditions of American Indian communities across the country on primitive wax cylinder and wire recording devices. After the invention of the reel-to-reel tape recorder, folklorists from the Library of Congress traveled to towns and cities across the South collecting stories, songs, riddles and recipes from both Anglo and African American citizens. During the 1930s and 1940s, unemployed writers, journalists, and playwrights were hired by the Works Progress Administration to interview thousands of former slaves and recent immigrants to the United States. In 1947, Allan Nevins founded the Columbia University Oral History Research Office; the first department at an American university devoted to teaching and practicing the methods of oral history. Since then, the study of oral histories has expanded. Universities, libraries, government agencies, local historical societies, community organizations, families, and private institutions all over the world use the techniques of oral history to collect valuable information about the facts of everyday life.

Characteristics and Educational Applications: As an educational tool, first-person narratives reveal cultural knowledge through personal experiences, perspectives, memories, vocabulary, and dialect. Many of these narratives become performances through the speaker's use of inflection, gestures, and verbal and facial expressions. Many cultures have emphasized the performative aspects of recitations, storytelling, and oratory by including instruments, dance, masks, and other theatrical embellishments. Because of the immediacy and intimacy of first-person narratives, they often carry strong emotional appeal for listeners. For example, a personal interview by a woman attending an actual childbirth in support of a mother can make a much more significant impression on its listeners than a factual, objective documentary report on increased use of midwives in hospitals. This characteristic adds to the viable and effective use of first-person narratives as learning tools. Educational resources such as classroom textbooks and newspapers have been criticized for focusing on dominant influences or populations in the world. First-person narratives from a cross-section of people who make up a society or take part in an event can provide essential elements to understanding. When interviewers solicit and collect many differing accounts of a particular subject, they give voice to people often overlooked or ignored and, thus, produce rich and diverse points of view.

Indivisible Narratives: Through testimonies, memories, stories, and songs, Indivisible audio portraits reveal insights into community work as varied as ecological preservation, youth initiatives, urban employment and educational programs, and rural small town revitalization. We hear first-hand accounts of the communities, their programs, and individual experiences as regional vernacular and intergenerational perspectives inform our understanding of the overall project.    This page last updated September 24, 2000.

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