Oral history in higher education: towards an organic discipline?
Andrea Hajek, University of Glasgow
Oral history sources have long been marginalized and criticized for their alleged unreliability. As Lynn Abrams puts it, the historical profession mistrusted oral history as a valid historical source. This changed after WW2, although it still took several decades before oral history methodology would be considered a research method. Today oral history is widely used both inside and outside academia, although not everyone always acknowledges the fact that they are indeed doing oral history, and not just gathering testimonies (I remember stumbling on this when trying to “recruit” members for our Oral History Network in the past). We also have a good range of publications on oral history methodology and theory, with Abram’s highly successful Oral History Theory (2010) standing out most. A more recent, Italian book that contributes to the development of oral history as a discipline that is increasingly taught in a university environment, is Bruno Bonomo’s Voices of memory. The use of oral sources in historical research (2013). This theoretical, historical, and methodological introduction to oral history is written mostly for students and early career researchers who want to create and use oral history sources in their research. The book offers both an overview of the history and theoretical implications of oral history and the practical and methodological side of oral history research. Accordingly, it is structured along three lines of discussion that explore the theory, history, and methodology of oral history, and it concludes with a useful reading guide where Bonomo offers reviews of some exemplary works of historical research that use oral history sources. Finally, we should also mention Valerie Yow’s new edition of Recording oral history: A guide for the humanities and social sciences (first published in 1994), which also provides reading recommendations as well as new developments and approaches to analysis and interpretation.
In spite of this wealth of secondary literature, clearly highly requested considering that many texts are often published again after several years, when it comes down to doing interviews for a research project, universities often lack services and resources. With the exception of some institutions which do offer courses on oral history (most notably of course the Oral History Society), or which actually have an internal oral history centre or network, such as the Scottish Oral History Centre at the University of Strathclyde and our very own Oral History Network at Warwick, universities are usually forced to draw on free lance oral historians. With students and researchers increasingly using oral history either as their primary research method or as a complementary source for qualitative data, and demand for oral history training within higher education necessarily outstripping supply, the time has perhaps come to develop a more organic format for the discipline of oral history as practiced in higher education.