The Importance of Oral History – Telling Our Stories

“Beware of the storytellers who are not fully conscious of the importance of their gifts, and who are irresponsible in the application of their art.”

– Ben Okri, Nigerian poet and novelist

In considering history, some may hold to the saying that if we do not remember the past or learn from it, we are “doomed” to repeat it. There is not necessarily doom in all history. However, there is significance to learning something from past experiences and an even richer value in how we position the stories connected to history. Specifically, oral histories are a way of preserving the stories of people, times and events that may otherwise be lost or retold in a less authentic context.

According to the Baylor University Institute for Oral History, oral histories serve several purposes:

  • shaping stories of the past
  • providing an understanding of the impact of the forces of history on individuals and communities
  • highlighting the influence of change and what remains despite change
  • creating a sustainable picture of the present and the past for future generations to explore

Most notably, oral history “enables people to share their stories in their own words, with their own voices, through their own understanding of what happened and why” (Institute for Oral History). The details of historical events may emerge through eye-witness accounts, letters, diaries, photographs, historical documents, and other elements. Oral history, i.e., telling our stories, connects us to the lives and voices that illuminate those stories.

Ideally, as those stories are told, they live on to span across time, across contexts, and across generations. But if they are not told consistently, passed on through the voices that take ownership of those stories, then eventually the stories disappear and are no longer deemed as an important link to the past. Consequently, the voices from our past eventually are also silenced.

Sources for further consideration

  • Byrne, Hannah. “An Introduction to Oral History”, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 2020, Retrieved 11 October 2022 from
  • Oral History Association, “Oral History in Education” Teacher Resources, Retrieved 19 October 2022 from
  • Sanchez. Rebecca and Spurlin, Quincy. “Listening to Locals, Listening to the Land.” Encounter, vol 22, no. 3, 2009, pp. 27–30.
  • Sandul, Paul, et al. “In the Pines, Where the Sun Don’t Ever Shine: Oral History, Community, and Race in Nacogdoches, East Texas.” East Texas Historical Journal, vol. 50, no. 1, 2012, pp. 27–48.
  • “Understanding Oral History: Why Do It?” The Institute for Oral History, Baylor University, University Libraries, 2012, Retrieved 12 October 2022 from