Oral History offers us an up close and personal view onto the past. By interacting with people who experienced and remember events in the past, and through the sharing of their individual stories, we learn about the past and its relevance to and in the present.

How do we define Oral History? What makes it both the oldest and the newest form of making history? And what isn’t Oral History? 


  • Identify the main components of Oral History
  • Understand the history of Oral History
  • Differentiate between oral history, oral traditions, and journalism

Time and Materials

90 mins

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

Write the following definition of oral history by Oral History Association on the board  or flip chart:

“Oral history is a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events.” 

Write the five parts of oral history on different flip chart paper and hang them on the wall:

  1. Field of study
  2. Method of gathering
  3. Method of preserving
  4. Method of interpreting
  5. Voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events 


Warm-up (30 minutes):

We reveal the oral history definition written on the flip chart and explain that it can be broken down into five parts – referring to the flip charts on the wall where the 5 parts of the definition are hung (5 mins).

Then we explain the first part of the definition that oral history is a field of study (5 mins). 

The participants are divided into four groups. We distribute Handout 3: What is Oral History to the participants and assign each group one of the remaining four parts of the definition of oral history (method of gathering, method of preserving, method of interpretation, voices and memories). We ask them to read their part and discuss their understanding of it together, brainstorm examples and/or contexts that they may be able to relate to (9 mins).

Then each group briefly presents (2 mins each) what they have understood to the whole group (15 mins). We can sum up main points and write them on the flip charts of each part of the definition we prepared ahead of time (check materials).

At the end of the discussion we focus on the last part of the handout on how oral history is a research-based process (5 mins).


Group Work (30 minutes):

The participants remain divided into 4 groups and we distribute Handout 4: History of Oral History to all participants for a group reading. 

We appoint 2 groups to focus on the differences and similarities between oral history and oral traditions, while the other 2 focus on the differences and similarities between oral history and journalism.

We ask each group to prepare a flip chart presentation with a table showing the differences and similarities.


Group Presentations (30 minutes): 

When the groups finish their work, we mix them together in such a way that each group that worked on oral history and oral traditions sits with a group that worked on oral history and journalism. Then each group presents their findings to the other group and they discuss them.

Notes and Tips for the Facilitator

  • Oral history is a field of study: Though a relatively recent field that emerged in the mid-20th century, like other fields, oral history has its own history that has evolved over the decades and that is accompanied by a growing body of literature. While it falls under the wider umbrella of the field of history, oral history is frequently adopted by researchers other than historians, such as anthropologists, sociologists, and linguists, as an approach and method to explore the complexities, patterns, and nuances of the past and their ongoing relevance in the present. 
  • Because of the wide access and reach of journalism, story-telling, and oral traditions, it might be harder for participants to differentiate directly between those practices and Oral History. If that is the case, refer back to the session handouts over the course of the learning journey. 
  • The presentations prepared during this session are kept on the wall for the session The Significance of Oral History.

Sources and Further Reading

“Oral History: Defined.” The Oral History Association (OHA).

Thompson, Paul. “The Voice of the Past: Oral History,” in The Oral History Reader, 2nd edition, eds. Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson (London: Routledge, 1998), p. 31.

“The Institute for Oral History.” University Libraries, Baylor University. 

“Introduction to Oral History.” The Institute for Oral History, 2016, Baylor University.

“Positionality.”, 23 August 2008.