Historical sources can be classified into many different categories, but for our purposes, the most obvious distinction is that between written and oral sources. While many consider written sources more credible than oral ones, written accounts are often based on oral testimony.

What are oral sources? How does working with voices and sound differ from working with the silence of text? Why might oral sources be considered less credible, less reliable as sources in the past?


  • Differentiate between oral and written sources in terms of their contribution to understanding the past and doing Oral History, and how they complement each other 

Time and Materials

90 mins

  • Flip chart papers
  • Markers (different colors)
  • Sticky notes
  • Coloring pens 



Warm-up (25 minutes):

We ask each participant to think about the most recent historical information they acquired or any remarkable historical event they learned about and to ask the following question: What is the source of this information on this past event?

We give them a couple of minutes to write their answer on a sticky note (for each source, ask them to use a different sticky note). We ask the participants to share their answers as they stick them on the flip chart. We ask if there are other sources not mentioned in the answers, and we add them.

We then look at all the answers together and ask participants to classify them into categories (any categories that come to mind – visual, material, written, oral).


Group Work and Presentations (50 minutes):

We distribute Handout 8: What Makes Oral History Different.

In this essay, Portelli outlines four reasons why Oral History is different from other kinds of historical research:

  • The orality of oral sources
  • Oral history as narrative
  • Events and their meaning 
  • Objectivity

We divide participants into four groups and assign each group one of the reasons Portelli suggests. For 20 minutes, each group reads one of the reasons, discusses the main ideas, and prepares a 5-minute presentation of the main ideas outlined in the reading in the form of newspaper headlines and quotations. We handout material needed.


Plenary Discussion (15 minutes):

Based on the group presentations, we facilitate a plenary discussion on the differences between written and oral sources and the importance of using both for any historical research to be comprehensive, thorough, and credible.

Guiding Questions:

  • What stands out from the headings and quotations that were presented?
  • What are the main distinctions between written and oral sources?
  • How can we use written and oral sources when conducting historical research?

We distribute Handout 9: Difference Between Oral and Written Sources  to the participants for future reference.

Notes and Tips for the Facilitator

  • Proposed answers for types of sources historians use: cave painting, archeology, architecture, archives in library, museum, university, or personal, manuscripts, published books, newspapers,  journals,  magazines (media), visual footage (TV, Video, YouTube, TikTok, etc.), films, documentaries, audio clips (radio, speeches), unpublished material like journals, letters, diaries, memoirs, telegrams, email correspondence, advertising material (posters, pamphlets, ads), maps: historical, geographical, social, photographs, fine arts (art, music, dance), crafts, pottery, carpentry, ironwork, furniture design, etc., industrial products and objects like typewriters, qandil (lanterns).
  • The Portelli text focuses on the difference between Oral and Written Sources, and in Oral History there is an emphasis on collecting and creating oral sources. However, the most comprehensive historical research, and which all historians strive for, is that which combines all kinds of available sources, be they written, oral, or other (visual, material, etc.), on which to build a historical interpretation and new synthesis.

Sources and Further Reading

Portelli, Alessandro. “What Makes Oral History Different,” In The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History (Albany: SUNY, 1991), pp. 45-58.  

For more information, see “Alessandro Portelli.” Wikipedia, 4 May 2022.