Why Oral History?
Oral history is a unique research tool, and archivists, historians, and other scholars have long debated its finer points. Oral history interviews are by nature wholly subjective -- they reflect only the interviewee's and interviewer's perspectives. Researchers who use oral history try to use them in conjunction with printed sources, which may provide a more balanced view. Yet in some subject areas, where there are relatively few records, oral interviews may well become the principal means of acquiring historical information.
All oral histories are not created equal. The term itself is ambiguous; it has included everything from a professional historian's interviews of research subjects, to group reminiscences, to celebrity questionnaires. The CBI oral history program is undergirded by four principles that help to ensure the development of "research-grade" interviews.
First, the potential research value of the interview is the most important factor in determining whether or not to conduct an interview. Second, CBI historians feel that oral history is not justified when reliable information is easily obtained from other sources. Third, oral history should be conducted by thoroughly informed interviewers. Fourth, oral history should be focused: interviews that are too broad in scope will not contain sufficiently detailed information for historical research.
Finally, interviews must be made available for research. Transcripts should be produced and the interviews should be opened to interested researchers as soon as practically possible.
For more information about the CBI oral history program see the CBI Newsletter, volume 24, number 1, Fall 2001, "Oral Histories Online," volume 14, number 2, Winter 1992, "Oral History Collection Update," and volume 24, number 3, Spring 2002, "Use of CBI's Oral Histories."