An oral history society may be a valuable part of many historical societies today or it may stand alone as an independent organization. Oral historians existed long before the written histories began. If you're familiar with the epic novel, Roots, then you may remember an African oral historian (called a griot) who recounted the birth and capture of Kunte Kinte. Whether that was a historical or fictional event does not change the fact that griots and other oral historians have kept the past alive for centuries by listening to elders and reciting their stories.
Using Oral Historian Insight for Research
Most people have one person who serves as the oral historian of their family. It may be a great aunt, an uncle or a distant cousin. The oral historian recounts the known details of the family. He or she may relay interesting tidbits of the everyday lives of your ancestors that you could not possibly find in a deed book, a will or a marriage certificate. If the family's historian tells you, "They always told me we came from queens," it will probably lead you to ultimately prove your ancestral connection to a line of nobility. When the family oral historian relates that "they said three brothers came to America from Denmark," you will most likely find that there is at least some truth to the statement. Sometimes these nuggets of insight are all you need to move your search for elusive ancestors in the right direction.
Although each society will have its own stated goals, in general they usually have an array of benefits for members. Each society will list its own benefits on the association's website and in its promotional literature. These member benefits may include:
- Members get to actively engage in current thinking about oral history
- Networking opportunities
- Conferences, seminars and training classes for members
- Special historical programs
- A journal, newsletter or ezine for members to keep them informed of upcoming events, training, interviews, breaking news and contemporary analysis
- Various discounts with memberships in societies
- Job and project participation opportunities
Each organization will list its objectives on its website and in promotional literature. In general most oral history societies exist to:
- Encourage the public to record life stories for posterity and keep the public informed
- Establish and raise standards of excellence in oral history
- Provide advocacy, support, advice, recommendations and job opportunities for those involved in this profession, and particularly for members
- Provide training and certification
- Serve as a clearinghouse for information for interested parties
- Create archives of oral histories
- Publish journals, reviews, interviews and perhaps audio or printed versions of histories
Contemporary Oral History Societies
Today, you may find many oral historians and those who are interested in preserving the past, as members of an oral history society. Among the existing independent oral history societies are:
Rutgers Oral History Archives
Rutgers University offers extensive oral history archives. Centered predominantly around citizens of New Jersey, New Jersey veterans and Rutgers University alumni, the archives features the OHS Journal.