Episode 61 : Difference of Life Story and Oral History

by Ian · 3 comments

in Oral History, Podcast

What we can learn from Oral History and how we travel our own path.

Oral history and storytelling bookend what we’re doing here at Create Your Life Story with our family Life Stories. Oral history is academic and storytelling is theatric.We’re not exactly in either camp but we can learn a great deal from these disciplines and this episode is about what I noticed in recently attending the Oral History Association of Australia national conference in Melbourne.

Some of the things I noticed Oral Historians have a strong interest in, that differs from us are:

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  • Copyright and attribution
  • Ethics
  • Procedure
  • Written context

They are after all approaching oral history with a strong history agenda, often involved with other organisations. These are fundamental differences from most people interested in family history and the gathering of individual stories for personal and family reasons. This enables us to have the agility to design our Life Stories to suit whatever we choose without the need to answer to anyone.

I did see one example of the power of using the different technologies to tell stories in non-traditional ways using artistic style in The South Sydney Project but most of interest was of a more traditional style.

Individual centric rather to history centric

It became clear to me that this larger community or societal history context, is what gives people the reason to want to record other people’s stories and the reason for the existence of oral history. This is the same for our family history life stories which will eventually be mined for information but we’re approaching this information from the opposite direction to oral historians.

Oral historians understand the topic and use the individual to find the stories of that topic. In family Life Stories we’re interested in the individual first, then along the way we gather information to possibly flush out the stories of the cultural topics, giving them a personal context.

We may end up in the same place of personalising major themes but these approaches are coming at history from opposite directions. This is the fundamental difference between traditional oral history and family history. We’re interested in the individual first and their stories only because we personally know them.

If you’re an Oral Historian what are you thoughts? Let us know in the comments below.

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Thanks for your reply Ian. I appreciate your concern over not getting bogged down in meetings…I’ve worked in universities for decades albeit not as an academic. The big plus with the type of oral history with which family historians are generally concerned is that the interviewee is keen to tell their story as well, and there’s a personal connection. I think the Buddhist approach works well -it precludes causing harm from our research.

As to copyright, as more info is out there, the harder it gets. On the other hand, educating people never does any harm 🙂



Thanks for the thoughtful response Pauleen,

I agree with you about the importance of working ethically but the issue I could see was more with the way copyright and ethics can stifle a project. This is something that happens in any field where you have multiple interests ending with paralysis of analysis and fear of doing something wrong rather than getting on with the task. Yes, this is a bit of my trade pragmatism coming through of wanting to have the recording before we loose them. I personally always work from the old Buddhist adage of doing no harm and we can learn a lot from the procedures of the professionals without being restricted by the endless meetings.

As for copyright and attribution – You’ll notice that I even ask for it in the Creative Commons licence at the bottom of the side bar but I realise that there is no way to enforce it and if people don’t play by the rules there is nothing I can do about it. This is only going to evolve over the next few decades where the whole copyright system will collapse and we all realise that nothing is new and we’re all sharing the collective human knowledge in different ways.
But and this is a big BUT, most people are fair, and if things are shared with the intent that we all stand on the shoulders of giants, then respect is given for the creation of content and with that attribution. …and the few who don’t, I’m not going to worry about.


hi Ian

I’ve been following your blog for a while and enjoy reading your posts and picking up tips for family and personal history as oral history is certainly not my strong suit. However this story made me a bit nervous. Surely we should all be concerned about ethics as we learn a lot of private info about people as we go along -are we sure we have authority from the interviewee to disclose everything they tell us -do we explain how we’re going to use it. Copyright and attribution are also important to ensure the right people are given credit. I think in this case we can learn from the academic model even though we are approaching it from opposite angles with different objectives. Thanks for a thought provoking post.

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