International School History - Skills - Sourcework - The usefulness of historical sources

Oral History
  These are two different types of source that share the characteristic that they are both produced by people who have lived through historical events. Oral history is conducted by historians using recognised social science techniques to record the testimony of eyewitnesses, usually a significant time after the event. Careful questioning can allow the researching to uncover memories and events that have long lain dormant.

But eyewitness accounts can also be generated by journalists and social scientists very soon after the event.
Strengths   Limitations
The distinctive advantage of these types of source is that it provides rare evidence of an event from a source that would otherwise not be recorded. Oral history is usually associated with ‘history from below’; the history of ‘ordinary’ men and women, often from minority or disadvantaged groups who would not usually leave a written record of their experiences. Contrast this with the biography section.

Oral history is particularly useful for social historians concerned with day-to-day life. Oral records can be very subjective, providing a personal human insight that can allow the reader to empathise with the historical character. This is particularly true for those actually conducting the interview.

  Nothing could be apparently more compelling than the declaration of a witness that ‘I saw it with my own eyes’. In reality, however, eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable, especially if a long period of time has elapsed since the event that is being recounted. It is not that witnesses deliberately lie (although some obviously do) but that over time and constant retelling, the testimony evolves in subtle but significant ways. The inaccuracy is particularly apparent for factual information – times, dates, places, names etc.

The subjectivity of the witnesses is also problematic. By definition we are getting a particular, personal perspective from a particular point in time and place. A single piece of testimony can not claim to be a representative viewpoint, a reliable indication of general opinion.

Finally, we need to acknowledge that witnesses are involved in the events they describe; sometimes they might even be participants. Consequently at the centre of the action they may be emotionally attached and lacking an objective, wider perspective.
Extract from the BBC documentary series Nazis a warning from history
is based on the oral testimony of 'ordinary' witnesses.
John Reed was an American journalist, poet, and communist activist, best remembered for his first-hand account of the Bolshevik Revolution.



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