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 The details of historical events may emerge through eye-witness accounts, letters, diaries, photographs, historical documents, and other elements.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.