On Oral History and the Presence of the Past


When I first moved to Toronto from British Columbia ten years ago, I took up a job with the Multicultural History Society of Ontario, coordinating an oral history project on the Scarborough community of Agincourt. Conducted in partnership with the Scarborough Historical Museum, the project took on a life of its own, interviews yielding more interviews as our network in the community expanded. In the end we conducted over 50 interviews with long-established residents and newer arrivals to the community from places as far flung as Sri Lanka, Egypt, Estonia, and Hong Kong. We transcribed every one of them (unbelievably, now, looking back). The project resulted in a travelling exhibition that toured schools, shopping malls, and civic and cultural institutions throughout Scarborough. It provided a meeting place for widely diverse experiences of a place changed almost beyond recognition, from a cross-roads farming community to a polyglot suburb, in the space of fifty years. The interviews generated a lot of nostalgia for this lost place, and, predictably, some bitterness about the changes that had occurred: the loss of rich farmland to suburban tract housing and shopping centres, the multiplicity of languages and lifeways that replaced what was familiar. They also, however, provided poignant commentary on the place that Agincourt had become: the opportunities for connection across cultures that it supported, the misunderstandings that persisted, and the experiences—some joyful, some horrific—that people carried with them to this place. Represented as they were in the exhibition through text excerpts, images and audio clips, these divergent experiences drew people in. People read, they lingered, and most of all they listened.

Oral histories are often dismissed as overly subjective, unreliable, and prone to nostalgia. Alessandro Portelli has written a cogent response to these charges in his essay, “What Makes Oral History Different,” in Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson’s 1998 Oral History Reader.  Oral sources are different from written sources, he argues, and as such, they require different interpretive instruments. They are different first and foremost in their orality. “The tone and volume range and the rhythm of popular speech carry implicit meaning and social connotations which are not reproducible in writing,” Portelli writes, making the transcript a poor substitute for the richness of the recording. The speaker’s subjectivity is another aspect that sets oral sources apart—not as a liability but as a source of value: “oral sources tell us not just about what people did, but what they wanted to do, what they believed they were doing, and what they now think they did.” Finally, oral sources have adifferent credibility. As Portelli concludes, there is no wrong account: “‘wrong’ statements are still psychologically ‘true’ and… this truth may be equally as important as factually reliable accounts.” [i]

Useful as these distinctions are in writing oral histories, they are also helpful in thinking about oral sources as teaching tools. Incorporating voice excerpts from existing oral history collections can bring a sense of immediacy to history education in the classroom, and offer students points of connection with the past. They can help to take students beyond the descriptive details of a given event to the meaning of that event for those who lived through it. Finally, they can be extremely evocative in demonstrating the multiple perspectives that together shape our understanding of the past.

For existing oral sources in Canadian history, the Canadian Oral History Association’s Guide to Oral History Collections in Canada is a great place to start. At a regional level, the Multicultural History Society’s collection of over 9,000 hours of interviews with people from more than 60 ethnocultural groups is one of the largest in North America. The MHSO is in the process of digitizing their extensive holdings. Further oral history sources can be found in THEN/HiER’s subject-based Repertory of Primary Sources database.

Many history teachers have initiated their own oral history projects, with varying degrees of success. To make such projects meaningful and instructive for students of history, appropriate scaffolding is essential. Guidance to help students script questions, interpret their findings, and reflect upon the larger significance of these findings can make the difference between a one-off project that fails to engage and one that is deeply integrated into the curriculum goals for that year. The Oral History Association in the US has produced a very useful resource guide for teachers seeking to initiate oral history projects in their classrooms (available for a modest fee).

The technological requirements for such projects are relatively low: a simple voice recorder, valued at about $100, and shared between a group of students, is all that is required to get most projects going. In my experience, partnerships with museums and other cultural institutions can be an effective way to get a project off the ground. Limited funding is available to support such collaborations from the Department of Canadian Heritage’s Community Memories Program, from THEN/HiER’s own Small Grants Program, and from other funding initiatives listed in THEN/HiER’s database of funding programs.

Recent innovations in transcription and data management software can help to make these projects more manageable for busy classroom teachers, and to engage today’s highly computer-literate students in building something meaningful. Steven High’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling at Concordia University, for example, has developed free software that allows oral historians to clip, index and export audio and video recordings as an alternative to transcription. Phase II of the Stories Matter software was announced in January 2010; it includes an online platform which allows multiple users to collaborate on the creation of a single database through an online server. Students and teachers might also explore the possibilities of programs such as Google Earth and other open source GIS software (QuantumGIS and others) to “place” interview clips, images, or textual excerpts on satellite or street maps. Added to this, the ease of creating a blog or a project website to showcase interview clips or chart project progress, and the ubiquitous presence of comment functions that enable further dialogue on interview topics, are rapidly changing the landscape of oral history research. Programs such as these can be enlisted to transform a small classroom oral history project into something that could be built upon over multiple years, or expanded through collaboration with a local museum or historic site.

In conclusion, oral history not only offers a way to spark students’ interest in the past, but it also teaches—“through doing”—effective skills in organizing information, recognizing patterns, and assigning significance. It asks students to develop questions that are open-ended, encouraging expansive, reflective responses. It enlists students, in short, as active historians.

[i]  Alessandro Portelli, “What Makes Oral History Different,” in The Oral History Reader, ed. Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 63-74.

Originally written for Teaching the Past: A Blog About Teaching History in Canada 

Steven High’s recent paper on the Active History site, “What Can ‘Oral History’ Teach Us?” provides a useful follow-up read to this post.