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Oral History: Introduction


What is Oral History?

The Oral History Association (OHA) defines oral history as "a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events. Oral history is both the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word, and one of the most modern, initiated with tape recorders in the 1940s and now using 21st-century digital technologies."

It is important to emphasize that oral history involves an interpretative process of constructing meaning through the collection of narratives. There is an exploration of peoples' ways of knowing. Interviewers engage directly with narrators (interviewees) who recount their personal experiences related to diverse subjects. These interactions result in co-created primary sources that are archived and made available for future researchers.

Why is Oral History Important?

Oral history is important because it expands the historical record by obtaining narratives directly from people involved in historical processes or events. Oral history employs a methodology that looks to capture the depth of human experience. People can become empowered through the act of telling their own stories, as they assume the position of active agents shaping their own narratives. These narratives can contribute to a more profound and inclusive understanding of the past, which can lead to the modeling of more equitable societies.

Oral History and the IRB

Ordinarily, oral history projects do not require approval from an Institutional Review Board (IRB), which in the case of the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez (UPRM) is CPSHI. This is because oral history is usually not human-subject research meant to produce generalizable knowledge. Oral history is a co-creative process between interviewers and narrators which delves into the lived experiences of individuals.

Nevertheless, IRB approval may be necessary in cases where the narrators in an oral history project are considered members of a vulnerable population, such as incarcerated people or children. Additionally, if the oral history project involves analyzing data from the interviews and drawing generalizations, such as conclusions about the collective beliefs of a social group regarding a particular topic, IRB approval may be required.

NEH Grant Project

This guide was created as part of the project titled "Listening to Puerto Rico: The Promise of Oral History On-Campus and Beyond", funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. This project involves the creation of an Oral History Lab at UPRM for the collection of oral history interviews and their subsequent preservation for future access.

The present guide supports the goals of the project by serving as an instructional resource that covers the fundamentals and best practices of oral history.

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