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date: 23 February 2017

Oral History and Social Work

Abstract and Keywords

This article reviews basic skills for conducting and using oral histories, summarizes ethical issues, presents examples relevant to social work, and suggests useful resources. For social workers, oral history can be a way to record the history of social change as well as a means of promoting social change. Oral history can honor, inform, raise consciousness, and motivate action. Oral histories are particularly relevant for historically excluded populations and those with oral traditions. Generating the history requires a thorough awareness of the narrator, the story, and the role of the listener as well as skillful interviewing, use of digital technology, and appropriate archiving.

Keywords: oral history, life history, qualitative social research, social history, oral interviews

Stories form the essence of social life, the fabric through which people weave relationships. Thus social workers must be concerned with stories. Even the simplest conversations often center about stories, such as “this is what I did today. …” Over time, each person develops numerous stories about his or her life and environment. Some stories develop greater significance and meaning as time passes or in different contexts. What makes storytelling inherently a social experience is the sharing; the story, the teller (narrator), and one or more listeners become connected. By sharing lived experiences from recent and distant pasts, people create identity, traditions, and wisdom while inspiring reflection in others.

History is powerful. In families and communities, “stories organize experience, give coherence and meaning to life events, and provide a sense of continuity, history, and the future” (Mankowski & Rappaport, 2000, p. 481). When people share their views of history, they transmit information as well as traditions and folkways. We even share excitement about imaginary stories when we talk about such topics as, “when I saw that movie, I felt. …” Social workers skillfully harness the power of stories to promote human development and healing through such methods as narrative therapy (Abels & Abels, 2001), social history assessment (Andrews, 2007), and bibliotherapy (Pardeck, 1998). Websites for organizations that facilitate self-help and client empowerment are full of client stories as are websites about organizations that support community change makers. People love to hear stories of progress in the face of adversity. Facilitating the generation of such stories can be a key social work skill.

A core method for generating, recording, and using stories in social work is the oral history, an audio and/or video recording intentionally made for the purpose of documenting history. According to the Oral History Association Principles and Best Practices for Oral History, oral history refers both to a method of recording and preserving oral testimony and to the product of that process. It begins with an audio or video recording of a first-person account made by an interviewer with an interviewee (also referred to as a narrator), both of whom have the conscious intention of creating a permanent record to contribute to an understanding of the past. A verbal document—the oral history—results from this process and is preserved and made available in different forms to other users, researchers, and the public. A critical approach to the oral testimony and interpretations are necessary in the use of oral history (Oral History Association, 2014).

The evolution of digital technology, which makes high-quality recording and transcription easy, has contributed to a rise in the popularity of oral history.

This article will address the particular relevance of oral history as a social work method, review basic skills for conducting and using oral histories, and present examples of oral histories relevant to social work.

Significance of Oral History for Social Work

The social work profession exists to serve and empower all people, particularly those who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty (NASW, 2008). Most of recorded human history, across cultures, has documented the perspectives of people who have power in many forms: physical, social, political, and economic, including the capacity to oppress others. The dominant narratives silence the perspectives of those who were and are vulnerable, oppressed, and/or poor. People who have been excluded or marginalized have often been denied literacy skills and punished for communicating stories in other ways. Their histories have been intentionally suppressed as well as omitted by benign neglect. In various settings, as a matter of practice or research, social workers can promote a more just and complete historical record. (See, e.g. Zinn, 1980).

Oral histories do not give voice to the voiceless. People have voices in all circumstances. Historically oppressed people often share their voices and stories with one another, even when they must do so in secret. Oral histories honor their voices, facilitate sharing their voices with broader networks, and give other people the opportunity to hear the voices that oppressors and circumstances have tried to silence.

Just because a person speaks or tells a story does not mean she or he will be heard or feel heard. The process of listening in a way that assures narrators they are being heard can be healing. The importance of this dynamic is well established in social work direct practice with individuals, families, and groups (Gutierrez, Parsons, & Cox, 1998; Kadushin & Kadushin, 2013). At the community and policy levels, programs such as the Listening Project (2014) are promoting harmony among groups that have engaged in historical conflict. WorldPulse (2014) is using listening to facilitate empowerment, social inclusion, and economic advancement of excluded populations. Australian social worker Michael White (2007) advocated generating stories and observed that stories give us meaning, shape our identity, and build community cohesion.

Oral histories distinctively offer advantages that other historical methods cannot attain. Historians use records review, document analysis, direct observation, reflective reading of published works, examination of artifacts, and other diverse methods. Unlike these methods, oral histories provide rich expressions in the voices of the narrators. They are intentionally subjective, offering descriptive information with emotional and interpretive sharing by the narrator. When a social worker helps a person narrate an oral history, the resulting report is in the voice of the narrator, not the social worker, though the social worker as interviewer may help focus the topics in the oral history.

Oral histories are particularly suitable for people from cultures with traditions of passing stories orally. The dominant traditions of Europeans and other colonists in the past millennium have emphasized written histories. Given that literacy and education were reserved for people with wealth, primarily men, recorded history during the colonial period tended to be through the eyes of relatively affluent, educated men. Oppressed populations in Europe and indigenous people in other parts of the world, particularly regions in central and southern Africa, Australia, North America, South America, and rural communities in many regions of Asia, passed on their histories through word of mouth. Many histories have been lost or distorted, recorded through males only and through the lenses of Euro- and colonial cultures (Adams, Bell, & Griffin, 2007; Delgado & Stefancic, 2012).

Social research traditions emerged from dominant cultures and for a long time emphasized deductive and analytic methods. Even early ethnographic and narrative research methods produced reports that were filtered through the perspectives of the analytic researcher (Banks-Wallace, 2002; McNamara, 2009). In the past two decades, great strides have been taken in honoring qualitative, inductive, and synthesizing methods of research, including oral history methods. Recorded oral histories facilitate a blend of historical traditions in ways that allow people to communicate across cultures.

Recording oral histories in writing or through audio/visual technology is not the same as the oral passing of histories. Oral traditions create an expectation that listeners will re-tell the story orally. In some cultures, designated persons with special training are the keepers and tellers of the group’s stories. Listeners who preserve the oral tradition are likely to attend in ways that help them remember and re-tell the stories orally, without aid of written or recorded versions. Oral traditions have distinct value; they include the passing of historical information as well as folklore and other forms of wisdom. Oral histories often build on oral tradition but add the element of recording in some form, creating an audio, visual, and/or written record. An oral history hopefully will not replace an oral tradition, but such a history may help to preserve it or share it more broadly.

For social workers, oral history can be a way to record the history of social change as well as a means of promoting social change. As a record of change, in addition to documenting histories of individuals and groups who have been silenced, oral histories can tell the stories of people involved in planned and spontaneous social movements. An example is a record of the development of the social work profession from the 1920s through the 1970s made by Vida S. Grayson on behalf of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW, 1978–1980). The collection includes oral histories of social work practitioners, educators, and leaders who witnessed the evolution of the profession. Other views of the social work profession in history are Reisch & Andrews’s report based on oral histories of social workers persecuted during the McCarthy era (1999) and Bent-Goodley’s oral history of African American social work pioneers (2006). Will the Circle Be Unbroken? An Audio History of the Civil Rights Movement in Five Southern Communities and the Music of Those Times, written and produced by George King and narrated by Vertamae Grosvenor (Southern Regional Council, 1997), shares the voices of courageous activists who were a party to momentous change. Oral histories have long been essential resources for learning about social change.

As a means of social change, oral history can honor, inform, raise consciousness, and motivate action. Social workers can advocate for change through such information as statistical facts, system designs, and program or policy reports and plans. Inspiration for the change, though, comes from stories shared by people most affected by the need for change. At the same time, social workers can learn and practice skills for how to mobilize and execute change processes, but guidance from mentors who tell stories of what works certainly enriches their learning. Systematic collection of oral histories from people in need of changed circumstances and from change makers can thus enhance social work practice.

Many oral histories are generated to record the stories of individuals as unique people. Other oral histories rely on individual informants to talk about the history of a group, community, organization, or policy. The individual stories about larger ecological entities have value as unique stories, but narrators can also work collectively to generate a synthesized history that is different from a collection of stories from individuals. For example, at the community level, the collective narrative is a shared story, one that is common among a group of people and reflects shared experience and knowledge (Rappaport, 2000). Collective stories can build community cohesion, be a source of shared pride and belonging, and create community memory.

Community histories have significant power in shaping how people think about community experience. Well-drafted stories compel action in ways data and other forms of information cannot. Generating a story may fuel efforts to sustain or enhance positive change and promote sharing for replication across communities or focus issues. For example, in communities where people tend to talk negatively about youth because they believe underage drinking is common, providing data about how many youth do NOT drink (typically 70 percent or more) shifts the stories to tales of youth doing alcohol-free fun stuff (Most of Us, 2014). As a result, community pride and hope emerge, and people feel more efficacious about trying to reduce underage drinking rates.

The emergence of social media with the capacity for documentary video production and audio recording has opened extensive avenues for generating oral histories to influence social change. Three examples of groups that aim to promote change through oral history are noted here. Groundswell is a “network of oral historians, activists, cultural workers, community organizers, and documentary artists who are using oral history and narrative in creative, effective and ethical ways to support movement building and transformative social change” (Groundswell, 2013). PhotoVoice (2014) promotes access to tools such as cameras, printers, and recording devices for people in low-income and marginalized communities. PhotoVoice provides training and mentoring so that people can tell their own histories and other stories. Historical Voices (2014) sponsors a website with resources about best practices for digitalizing and archiving speech recordings, images, and text. The capacity for digital communication as an avenue for generating oral histories is burgeoning.

An example of how individual and collective histories can influence attitudes and beliefs on a societal level is the Canadian Aboriginal documentary series The Sharing Circle (2014). These documentaries are developed by Aboriginal people using traditional, spiritual ways of sharing stories. Each documentary addresses a contemporary issue while sharing wisdom. The series has as its stated aim healing the world through dissemination of truth. The series illustrates the capacity of individual and collective oral histories to promote healing within and across cultures.

Social workers promote social change at all levels of the ecology: with individuals, families, groups, communities, organizations, and policies. Oral history can be a useful tool for social work research, education, and practice at any ecological level.

Basic Skills for Generating Oral Histories

The process of generating oral histories can be an empowering and educational process. People of all ages can be trained to participate. Skills at reading or writing are not essential. For example, children gain appreciation for their own cultural heritage by interviewing their grandparents and creating a family history. Grandparents gain appreciation for emerging culture by doing oral histories of their younger descendants. Students learn while creating historical records (see, e.g. the fifteen oral history interviews of social and political activists, generated by Smith College students (Smith College Libraries) or the description of a BSW student oral history project with older adults who have diverse immigration experiences (Maschi et al., 2012).

The term generating refers to a creative process that takes existing elements and transforms them into something new. In an oral history, the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs of a narrator are expressed and recorded in a fresh way that other people can use.

Generating an oral history requires use of some sort of recording capacity. Technology changes over time, with early oral histories recorded on old tapes and other materials with short lives. Formerly, histories were transcribed for preservation as written records. Contemporary methods rely on digital equipment so that digital records can be made. Oral histories center on an interview between narrator and listener. Data collection may be done through a dialogue interview or other creative methods, such as performance ethnography (Garlock, 2012) or sharing circles (BFUU, 2014; Richardson, 2013). Making the digital record may require portable digital video and audio recorders, laptop computers, digital cameras, editing software, and printer/scanners as well as supplies for any equipment. Oral historians need to be skilled at using and maintaining the equipment.

Sometimes the narrator will share documents, artifacts, or artwork and will give specific permission for photographs or copies to be made. These images become part of the historical record. The interviewer should get explicit permission to copy each item and make careful annotations about each item for the record.

Oral histories typically emerge from structured interviews or guided group discussions that elicit memories and feelings associated with historical events (see, e.g., Atkinson, 1998). Generating the history requires a thorough awareness of the narrator, the story, and the role of the listener as well as skillful interviewing, recording, and archiving.

The Narrator

Oral histories may be generated for many reasons. Establishing an archived record has meaning in its own right. The history develops a life of its own, lasting long after the individual or collective narrators’ voices have passed. People in subsequent generations learn from the voice of the narrator. Their interpretations of the history contribute to their own meaning making and may help them plan for their futures. The process of gathering an oral history can honor the narrator and the narrator’s social networks, yielding benefits such as feelings of affirmation and power.

Respect for the narrator and his or her story is the overarching value in generating an oral history. Each narrator has a unique standpoint that is informed by his or her personal lived experience as well as attributes (e.g., age, culture, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, education, and a host of other qualities). Interviewers should be informed about and mindful of the narrator’s standpoint.

The Oral History Association (OHA) has developed principles and best practices for the collection, preservation, dissemination, and uses of oral testimony (Oral History Association, 2014). Creating an oral history requires adherence to research ethics, starting with voluntary informed consent from the narrator. The consent should be based on full information about the purpose of gathering the history and planned use and dissemination of the history. Oral histories become public documents, for use by historians, educators, and members of the public, so the assurance of confidentiality or anonymity is typically waived. Usually the narrator’s identity becomes public, as does information about the context of the narrator’s story. The informed consent process should promote the narrator’s understanding that dissemination of the oral history, which is typically public, may lead to interpretations and commentary that are beyond the control of the narrator or interviewer. Exceptions to this openness do occur, as in cases where the narrator needs protection through a pseudonym, such as people who are subject to legal prosecution (e.g., undocumented immigrant) or personal risks (e.g., military sexual assault survivor). Whether to identify a narrator should be negotiated before the interview is done, as part of the informed consent process.

The informed consent process should state the purpose and any boundaries of the interview. Interviewers should respect the right of the narrator to refuse to discuss certain topics. Narrators may reveal feelings of trauma of other emotional need. The social worker in the role of oral historian is not a therapist; thus, as with other types of research, the interviewer should be prepared to refer the narrator for crisis counseling or other assistance as needed.

The narrator actually owns the rights to the story unless they are specifically assigned to someone else. The Oral History Association guidelines specify that the informed consent process prior to the interview should help the narrator understand that “his or her rights to the interviews include editing, access restrictions, copyrights, prior use, royalties, and the expected disposition and dissemination of all forms of the record, including the potential distribution electronically or on-line; and the recording(s) will remain confidential until the narrator has given permission via a signed legal release” (Oral History Association, 2014).

Oral histories of families, communities, organizations, or policies may involve multiple informants with diverse perspectives. The OHA Principles note that interviewers should respect the unique perspective of each narrator, withholding judgment or bias.

The Story

When a person talks about her or his own view of life, the themes may be interpreted in nuanced ways. As interviewers listen to and engage in dialogue with narrators, they can learn to attend to various messages in the story. Ethnologist Edward Bruner (1984) regarded life history themes as having three threads:

  • The “life lived,” which is a record of life events, such as developmental milestones, critical incidents, and major life decision points (these can be charted on a time line);

  • The “life experienced,” expressed by the narrator as images, feelings, meaning, and opinions about what happened;

  • The “life as told,” which is the form and content of the story as influenced by context, including audience and storytelling method.

The latter concept, “story as told,” explains why every time a history is told, it may be expressed differently. For example, when a survivor of intimate partner violence shares her story at a “Speak Out” rally, it is likely to have a different form of expression than when she tells her story at a support group or in written form for a website. The messages about life lived and life experienced may be the same, but the telling for each audience is likely to vary in form, choice of words, and emotional expression. Each story as told has unique value and meaning.

Each oral history must be time limited and thus tends to have a focus. The focus may be broad, such as asking an elderly person to “Tell us about your life as a child.” Typically the focus is more specific, such as “Tell us how your life has changed since the coal mine ceased operations.” The narrator may take the story in many directions and thus enrich the narrative. But if the narrator stays off topic, the interviewer may need to gently encourage focus.

The Interviewer/Listener

Social workers use interviews to gather information for many purposes. The interview for an oral history is different from gathering a social history for clinical purposes or documenting organizational processes for marketing or evaluation purposes. The purpose of an oral history is to create an expressive record of the past. Narrators will share joy and pain, success and failure. An oral history is a reflective, information-rich process that requires time, attentive listening, and detailed construction of a record.

During the process of developing an oral history, an interviewer (e.g., social worker) serves as engaged listener. Willox et al. (2013) caution interviewers that they are likely to have “dual conversations,” one that is their own story in their head and the other to which they are listening. The interviewer needs to cast away any thought that there is a “right” or “wrong” story and be mindful of any tendency to doubt or distrust the narrator. The story belongs to the narrator and has unique value. The interviewer, as listener, may engage in ways that helps her or his own understanding.

When the oral history is recorded and curated, the listeners are the audience, people who read or listen to the story as individuals or groups. Oral histories have value for many audiences. As interviewers and narrators generate stories, they should be mindful of multiple audiences, such as people who are currently in the narrator’s family or community, future generations of people who can learn from the wisdom in the history, and people from different communities and cultures. Together the narrator and interviewer can shape the story so that various audiences might understand and appreciate the history.

The Interview Process

The interview process involves substantial advance preparation, skilled engagement of the narrator, and careful development of the historical record.

The interviewer will often devote as much time to preparing as to actually conducting the interview(s). Narrators should be chosen for clear reasons. The interviewer should learn as much as possible about the narrator and the focus topic, including the ecological context of the narrator’s story. Initial contact (via phone, email, or other communication) should be appropriate for the narrator’s culture and clearly state the purpose. Audio and visual recording equipment and camera should be tested and a setting chosen where clear communication is possible. The narrator should know the planned length of the interview.

Anyone who conducts an oral history should have mastered interviewing and reflective listening skills and be adept at engaging the narrator in the informed consent procedure. General questions should be carefully developed in advance, though spontaneous questions will also emerge as the dialogue proceeds.

The interviewer listens reflectively, asks for facts, feeling, values, and meaning, and makes careful notes. Reflective listening is a skill that can be learned, and it involves attentive and engaged communication, support for times of silence and thinking, and affirming comments. The interviewer encourages the narrator’s reflections about key events and themes in the history and what meaning they gave to the narrator. While listening and interacting, the interviewer looks for information that may not be captured in the factual history, such as specific behaviors (actions), feelings, cognitions (e.g. perceptions of others, beliefs about what’s happening, perceived achievements, perceived frustrations), and imagery, The interviewer will attend to the narrator’s feelings (such as excitement, humor, or frustration) as well as words.

Oral history interviews can be enhanced by use of appreciative inquiry (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2005), a questioning dialogue process that elicits emotions as well as rational thoughts. The interviewer asks carefully phrased questions that elicit reflective answers about strengths and assets, which tends to help narrators feel psychologically safe. The narrators are more likely to share creative ideas and venture into more difficult topics when grounded in positive ideas first. The history becomes infused with what is most important and meaningful to the narrator.

Oral historians often approach interviews as a form of action research (Reason & Bradbury, 2008), which is grounded in principles of democratic participation and justice and attention to context and power. The interviewer acknowledges the power of the narrator and together they set the stage for the interview, including forming questions. Paolo Friere (1968) advocated an inclusive process where the interviewer is someone who is part of the narrator’s culture or understands the narrator’s standpoint. As the interviewer engages the narrator in dialogue, he or she reflects on the narrator’s comments and suggests generative themes (Friere, 1968).

When the purpose of the oral history is to inspire social change by documenting lessons learned from social action, a line of inquiry suggested by Labonté (2011) may be useful. Labonté urged activists to convert stories of social action to more rigorous narratives of practice that deliberately attempt to create new meaning from the stories. The exchange between interviewer and narrator could follow a structured dialogue through four categories of questions:

  1. 1. What? (Description) Describe the initiative or action and what worked well or not

  2. 2. Why? (Explanation) Why did action proceed the way it did and why did the results occur?

  3. 3. So what? (Synthesis) What did people learn from the experience and how have they changed? and

  4. 4. Now what? (Action) How will you act differently in the future and what were the major lessons learned?

Together, interviewer and narrator craft a synthesized history.

Creating the Historical Record

The interviewer works with the narrator to authenticate the oral history. The narrator should review the final product in any forms it may take (audio, visual, and text) and certify that the product is authentically his or her words. Digital communications create opportunities to share the histories by way of DVDs, YouTube, Facebook©, websites, and other media.

After the interview, oral histories become records, so the interviewer should carefully plan—before the interview—for high-quality recording of the audio and/or visual record, accurate transcription if a written record is made, appropriate curating to assure preservation, and dissemination methods that allow access to the record (Yow, 2005). Oral histories may have multiple records: interviewer’s notes, recordings, transcriptions, and perhaps copies of related photos, documents, or artifacts. Libraries affiliated with institutions of higher education and many public libraries have repositories where oral histories can be protectively archived and accessed.

Using Oral Histories in Social Work

Oral histories are essentially subjective, so interpreting records of oral interviews requires critical judgment (History Matters, 2014). Narrators often refer to events and places without explanation. The user often needs to do research to understand the context of an interview. History Matters (2014) guidelines for interpreting oral history admonish the user to ask, “Who is saying what, to whom, for what purpose, and under what circumstances?” The context of the telling (the interview) is as important as the context of the topic of the story.

The user of oral history records must be mindful that a narrator’s statements are about the narrator’s view of life. The narrator’s statements add value to understanding historical events, but they may be inconsistent with reports and statements from other sources. Issues of “what is truth?” may arise. Keep in mind that facts may be objective but truth is a subjective perception.

Oral historians often do not aim to establish facts about events. The telling of memories must be an incomplete record of what happened, because moment-by-moment recollections cannot be precisely done. And, as social workers well know, a person’s memory is often affected by physical, mental, and emotional state at the time of an event, so partial memories may emerge. Names and dates may be imprecise and some distinct events may be merged due to physiological and psychological memory issues. Some narrators may need to avoid topics to manage post-traumatic stress. Many people have good reasons to minimize, deny, or even falsify information. Deception may help to protect lives. Sometimes people blend beliefs with facts, as when they make attributions (e.g., “She shot the gun because she always hated him …” when others say, “She shot the gun after a knife was thrust into her face.”). Different people have unique standpoints when a shared event occurs, so their memories may not be exactly alike.

Any of these factors may affect the telling of a history, but they in no way negate the value of the narrative. Through oral history, social workers seek to understand narrators’ feelings and beliefs about things that happened in their lives. How the narrator makes meaning helps users of the interview to understand the human condition.

If a purpose of the interview is to better understand historical fact, then validity, reliability, and bias should be considered (Andrews, 2007). Validity is the extent to which facts as narrated are consistent with objective records; if the narrator was a direct witness and is not sharing a story that was told by someone else, then validity is higher. Reliability is the consistent narrating of information over time or across settings. If the core story changes substantially, then reliability is questionable. Bias pertains to the likelihood that the narrator has something to gain by telling the story a certain way rather than attempting to be fair to all parties.

Oral histories have obvious value for social work research, education, and practice. They offer rich information to help practitioners understand the past, interpret the present, and plan for the future. Reading or watching an oral history is an act of social engagement, creating a bridge between the social worker and the recorded narrator. Social workers and students can polish their skills of interpretation as they engage in individual and collective reflection about themes in the history.

The user of an oral history should seek to interpret and understand the narrator’s story without bias or judgment. Oral histories are contextual. An oral history is generated at a certain time, in a place or series of places, and within a culture. An oral history is typically bounded and is dynamic. For example, an interviewer in 2013 might ask an African American elder who lived in a southern U.S. state during the 1950s what it was like to live under legal racial segregation. The narrator may describe the atrocious restrictions and offer reflective comments about how segregation felt at the time and is also likely to offer additional commentary based on retrospective. The retrospective would be influenced by such factors as place (e.g., whether the narrator still lives in the same place or migrated elsewhere), lived interracial experiences since the time of segregation (e.g. continued exclusion or progress toward inclusion), and historical events.

An example of how generating an oral history can be useful as a social intervention at multiple ecological levels is highlighted here. Willox et al. (2013), a transdisciplinary team of indigenous and nonindigenous people, developed a digital narrative method to preserve and promote the wisdom of an indigenous population. The team was keenly aware of the effect of colonization and the history of exploitive research involving indigenous populations. With a focus on how climate change is affecting the lives of people in a particular Inuit community in a remote area, the team facilitated the capacity of community members to generate participant-created story-centered narratives. The method engaged community members as they developed skills for gathering diverse stories and perspectives from the people of their area. The skills involved use of digital equipment as well as interviewing for deep reflection.

Willox et al. define digital storytelling as “the process of illustrating personal narratives and stories with photographs, artwork, music, voice-overlay, video clips, and text—a first-person mini-movie of sorts. These stories are created during immersive workshops, where participants develop and share stories through group story circles, reading and/or telling their stories aloud to participants to share experiences and to receive feedback” (p. 132). This weaving of the personal and the collective produces transformation at the individual and community levels. The dynamic process encourages respect, trust, and learning. The resulting oral histories revealed multiple themes of triumph and challenge as well as profound questions, such as “Will we exist?” The process of generating the histories strengthened connections within the community, affirmed relations with nonindigenous people who care about the community, and produced information of value for protecting the future of the community through policy reform.

Social workers have much to learn by going through the process of helping narrators create oral histories as well as examining archives of oral histories relevant to social work. At list of selected resources to advance oral history skills is at the end of this article.


When we hear or read a person’s narrative in her or his own voice, we tend to interpret and make meaning through our own lenses. Often we are bridging culture, language, age, ethnicity, gender, and other diverse qualities as we aim to respectfully and deliberately understand the narrator. This process can be enlightening, even invigorating.

Oral history methods can document, preserve, and disseminate those stories for the benefit of others. As with all social work practices, the social worker who generates an oral history will adhere to practice-specific ethical guidelines and high-quality practice standards. The process of generating an oral history, though it can be performed by anyone, requires careful planning, skills, and equipment.

Oral histories may be records with delayed value to be realized by generations long into the future. They may also be dynamic tools of personal and social change. The process of generating oral histories can honor the voices of people who have been socially excluded and promote feelings of empowerment and healing. Participating in the generative process can also inspire the listeners/interviewers while advancing their understanding and skills. The process, intentionally subjective, can yield deep reflection and new meaning. Reading, listening to, or watching oral histories can likewise be profoundly educational.

Social workers have long been custodians of powerful stories that inspire positive social development at all ecological levels. With an arsenal of digital technology now easily available, social workers can assure that the stories are preserved as oral histories.

Sample Resources for Further Study

Columbia Center for Oral History, Columbia University.

The Columbia University Center for Oral History [CCOH] advances the practice and teaching of oral history. The archive, located in the Columbia University Libraries and open to the public, holds more than 8,000 interviews, in audio, video, and text formats, on a wide variety of subjects. The CCOH mission is to record unique life histories, to document the central historical events and memories, and to teach and do research across disciplines. Many interviews are of interest to social workers. CCOH holds one of the largest oral history collections on the New Deal in the country, an expansive history of the Social Security Administration, interviews with leaders of the American Civil Rights movements, women’s liberation and equality movements, anti-war movements, and more.

The CCOH also provides education about how to generate oral histories through a variety of training venues. An example is the series of workshops, Telling Lives: Community Oral History for Social Change, co-sponsored with Columbia’s Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy. Telling Lives helps those working in areas such as immigration, homelessness, education access, ethnicity, gender, and human rights to record their stories. Through the collection and analysis of community histories, participants use the voices of individuals to create lasting change.

History Matters. Oral History Online.

History Matters is a project of the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning of the City University of New York and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Designed for high school and college teachers and students of U.S. history survey courses, this site serves as a gateway to web resources and offers unique teaching materials, first-person primary documents, and guides to analyzing historical evidence. History Matters focuses on the lives of ordinary Americans and actively involves students in analyzing and interpreting evidence. The website leads to an extensive array of resources, including exemplary oral history websites, oral history “how-to” guides, and tips for evaluating oral history.

Historical Voices

Concerned that many recorded voices are stored away, disintegrated, or lost, Historical Voices seeks to create a significant, fully searchable online database of spoken word collections. Spanning the 20th century, this is the first large-scale repository of its kind. Historical Voices provides storage for these digital holdings and displays public galleries that cover a variety of interests and topics. Historical Voices offers particularly helpful information about how to record and archive oral history, including best practices in digital sound digitization, developing a digital archive for multimedia materials, and promoting universal access through robust metadata format. The website also provides critical training resources, particularly with regard to high-quality recording and collaborative archiving.

Oral History Association

The Oral History Association (OHA) brings together diverse people interested in oral history as a way to collect and interpret human memories to foster knowledge and human dignity. Members include historians, librarians, archivists, researchers, journalists, teachers, students, and scholars from many fields. The OHA promotes standards of excellence in the collection, preservation, dissemination, and uses of oral testimony. OHA sponsors conferences and produces Principles and Best Practices for Oral History.


PhotoVoice’s vision is for a world in which no one is denied the opportunity to speak out and be heard. PhotoVoice practitioners work among disadvantaged and marginalized communities using participatory photography and digital storytelling to generate opportunities for people to represent themselves. They create tools for advocacy and communication to achieve positive social change. PhotoVoice advocates ethical practices, provides free training resources through its website, facilitates access to tools, and shares exhibits, which include oral histories accompanied by images.


StoryCorps is an independent nonprofit whose mission is to provide people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives. As of early 2014, StoryCorps has collected and archived more than 45,000 interviews with nearly 90,000 participants. Each conversation is recorded on a free CD to share, and the CD is preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. StoryCorps is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind. Millions listen to the weekly broadcasts on NPR’s Morning Edition and on the StoryCorps website.

StoryCorps does this “to remind one another of our shared humanity, strengthen and build the connections between people, teach the value of listening, and weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that every life matters.” StoryCorps encourages people to contact the organization to record their stories, to learn how to make their own recordings, and to participate in the National Day of Listening, which encourages people to honor someone by listening.


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