This week’s readings tackle another modus operandi of history – recounting of historical events through conversation. Rather than the often-practiced reading of literature – a crucial and valid part of historiography, historians can also turn to actual people who have lived through events or otherwise have extensive knowledge in a certain field. It is in my personal opinion that the use of conversation and interview should not be brushed aside in the formation of our understanding of history; it is the most basic form of information transmission and the foundation of history in the first place.
In Paul Thomson’s piece, he highlights what I feel stands out most about oral history: the fact that with this method you can pick and choose what information to pry from someone. All of undergrad I’ve been inundated with literature on countless topics, and in some cases I pick out books that are perfect for what I’m looking for, and other times it is the exact opposite and I pick a book that seems relevant but doesn’t go over what exactly I’m looking to find. With people, as Thomson points out, you can sift through a large amount of information by picking certain individuals (narrowing your topic down) and questioning them (narrowing it even further, to such a degree that many books cannot compete). I like to think of this as entering a sophisticated database for example, and a keyword or sentence fragment would bring up various hits, a human brain is similar to this and likely a lot more efficient – humans are a valuable resource and in history I personally find myself often getting lost in the words and forgetting that the things I read are truly real. Talking to someone who lived through it is not only valuable for specific information finding but also bringing the event to life.
Another thing I find very important is that certain events are completely wiped from ‘history’ as we know it (books burned, extreme biases in respected works, not many survivors etc.) and simply cannot be accounted for by regular methods. People and oral history can bridge this, while there may not be many books about a particular event, there might just be a few people who were old enough to have seen the event happen with their own eyes. These people can be interviewed, and ideally the more interviewees the better, just like books. Recording information has become the absolute staple of history, but we should not forget how we got where we are today – communicating and sharing information through word of mouth.