The distinctive advantage of these types of source is that
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
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
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.