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What Are Oral Histories And Why Are They Valuable

May 24 2023

What Are Oral Histories And Why Are They Valuable

Oral histories are the lifeblood of documentation of our world. It’s where we start when we want to find out what happened. When the police piece together what happened at a crime they look for witnesses. They talk to all who witnessed the event, then, along with all the forensic evidence they assemble, as best they can, what happened. They put together a more formal history of the event, but they start with oral histories. When we listen to our parents tell stories about our families, our grandparents and their lives, we are listening to oral histories. When we interview a person and record their stories, we are recording oral history. These stories, these oral histories, are primary source material. And this is the importance of oral history. Oral histories are what history is built on.

Understanding oral history makes it clear that the more stories, observations, and accounts, about any event one is able to collect, the more reliable the history will be — and this is foundational to History Chip. No offense to each of our individual memories, but our memories aren’t always accurate or complete. For instance, I know a woman who was present at Ground Zero on 9/11/2001 who has absolutely no memory at all of the sound of the Towers coming down and yet that sound has been described as a freight train barreling toward you. But for her, it’s as though she has a hole in her memory of that day, of that sound. We need lots of memories to get a complete picture. So, we need lots of people to tell their stories, their oral histories, and why it’s important for all of us to share our stories, for you to share your story.

Often these oral histories, like what the sound of the Twin Towers coming down was like, are only a small part of the larger story but they help to fill in gaps and it’s all the small stories that add up to a complete truth. Our stories make history more complete and more truthful.

Inasmuch as individual voices are crucial, so too are the voices of communities. Foundational to History Chip is the need to end the omission of communities of people. Women, people of color, indigenous peoples, people in developing countries, the disabled, the poor, LGBTQ, to name a few, do not feature largely in the history of the world. By encouraging marginalized communities to share their stories we are opening up history to a much more complete understanding of our world. And this isn’t just so that we know more, rather so that we understand and have compassion for the needs of all the world’s people and so that our leaders can make better policy decisions. Understanding our oral history, even the little stories people share is important simply because the ‘ordinary’ people of the world are the largest part of our population. Understanding the history and lives of most of us is from our point of view here at History Chip, the most important part of history.

The story below is a vignette of a larger story describing something about which all of us are familiar. Food is fundamental and storing it, keeping it fresh is a perennial issue. It’s not a ‘big’ story, it’s just about how we live, about how people lived in the 1920s and 30s in America.

Food Storage Before Plastic

By Pat Broman

Let’s see - way back then - in the 20’s and the 30’s, those dreary Depression years. What did we do without “Saran Wrap”, “Tupperware”, plastic bottles - all those non-biodegradable items that will be here far into the future after our very biodegradable selves are long gone - unless of course we have plastic parts! 

Well - to get back to housekeeping in the good old days - there was glass and tin. I still have the glass container and glass cover in which my mother stored left over foods. We didn’t buy in quantity. No Costco, just neighborhood grocery stores where one didn’t get carried away by choices on the shelves. We stood at the counter and gave our list to the grocer who brought the items to us. We didn’t shop every day, but quite often. We did buy food in season, and fruits and vegetables were raised nearby, each in its own special time of the year. I remember how good those early peas tasted - peas and fresh salmon caught in cold New England waters were enjoyed for Memorial Day. There was Connecticut River Shad too, a special treat when they were running. Winter meant root vegetables and stews.

These little stories together add up to the big story of what our life is like. The more stories we have, the clearer we see the world. All of our stories matter. Your stories matter!