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What is oral history?

The term "oral history" refers to historical information conveyed in speech that draws on the speaker's personal memories. In a wider sense, the term also suggests the act of documenting, preserving, and studying such spoken documents. Based largely on memories and stories, oral history was long viewed as less important than its written counterpart in historical research. In contrast to the widespread tendency among historians to rely on written documentation, after the Second World War, a movement emerged to give voice to those who were directly involved in historical events. And as the evidential value of oral history increased with various technological advances, its use as a scholarly method came to be prized in fields such as anthropology, sociology, history, and political science. In art history too, the use of oral history is beginning to flourish in Japan and abroad.

Oral history does more than merely supplement the written word, as there are often significant differences in the way that each individual perceives their role or involvement in a certain event. The speaker's personal feelings can also provide clues that eventually lead to a greater understanding of various occurrences. Historical events themselves are more than a single result that was culled from a wide range of possibilities; there are often a variety of other possibilities lurking in the background. In oral history, a person's stories can elucidate and add depth to an event that previously seemed to be a jumble of disparate ideas. Unlike a standard interview, oral history is not conducted with a particular objective in mind, nor is it meant to satisfy a short-term need. Rather, it is a long-term project to assemble an extensive range of facts and ideas regarding a certain historical event. The value of oral history can only fully be realized when researchers make active use of the resources based on their own historical interests.