Footprints of Fayette

A Historical Column From The Fayette County
Historical Commission and Fayette County Judge’s Office

Oral History: What It Is &
Why It Matters – Part II
By Alice Rudersdorf

In the field of history, there is factual truth and there is human truth. Factual truth gives us specific dates, locations, names and events. Human truth tells us how people individually, and sometimes collectively, viewed the world, and how they were personally affected by events. In human truth, accuracy of memory is not as important as lasting impressions.
Accuracy can be verified through sources containing factual truth: county records, census reports and contemporary newspaper accounts. The date of a hurricane can easily be found in written records, but the impact that the hurricane had on those who survived it can only be heard through oral history. Years later, survivors may not accurately recall the date, but they will certainly recall the impression the hurricane made on them. Human truth is the unique contribution that oral history adds to the historical record. 
There are four types of oral histories:
1. Life histories, which focus on the lives of individual people.
2. Topic histories (focusing on specific events, time periods, groups of people, cultural heritage, organizations).
3. Theme centered histories (focusing on patterns or concepts like conflict, religion, education, music, food traditions).
4. Oral histories documenting specific artifacts or locations.
In each case, the stories of individuals who have had firsthand experience with the subject of the oral history project are recorded. That is the difference between oral history and folklore or legends. While they all bring forward stories from the past, oral history is an account of someone’s individual story of their personal, firsthand experiences. Folklore and legends are stories passed on from generation to generation, from which lessons can be learned, but they do not reflect the personal experience of the storyteller. 
Obviously, we can’t go back too far using oral history to add the human voice to the historical record, but we can go back as far as our narrators’ lifetimes, and go forward from there, making sure more voices are included in the historical records of the future. After all, today’s events are tomorrow’s history.
Even if our oral history interviews don’t make tomorrow’s history books, they can be preserved for future researchers as primary source documents. There is great value in knowing what life was like before. It is an important teaching tool of what did or did not work in the past.  However, the value of history is not limited to knowing what life was like in the past to hopefully avoid repeating the same mistakes. It is also about knowing where we come from, who we are, and feeling somehow connected to something larger than ourselves.
Perhaps documenting oral histories for future generations is more important now than ever before. This can give our children and our children’s children a touchstone, a connecting point and a source of personal pride as we become more and more diverse, globalized and less connected with each other through advances in technology. 
As a child, I was embarrassed when my parents always waited until Christmas Eve to put up the Christmas tree. I thought it was because we had little money, and the trees were always cheaper and sometimes free on Christmas Eve. Then I learned that the tradition of putting up the tree on Christmas Eve came from my mother’s German heritage, and it became a source of pride. This knowledge changed how I viewed my family and myself.
If it’s too late to record our grandparents or parents’ stories, it is not too late to record our own stories, and the stories of those around us. They can become more than interesting stories that give us a sense of what life was like before. They can become sources of pride and self-worth.
If the gems of wisdom, knowledge and understanding that are locked in people’s memories are not recorded and preserved, those gems will be lost forever. Don’t be guilty of one day saying, “If only I had asked those questions!”