3. What is Public History? What is Oral History?

  1. What is Public History? What is Oral History?

Compiled and annotated by:

 Quinlan Odom (MA, Public History from Middle Tennessee State University)

John Broadwell (current MA student, Public History, MTSU)

Researchers/Project Assistants, Center for Food and Culture

A Public Historian is any history professional who engages with the public outside of a classroom setting in their work. They receive the same training as historians and base their work in the same theories, but tend to use what they learn to engage with the general public. Public historians include museum professionals, archivists, curators, and anybody else who makes history accessible for the public.

Oral history is an interdisciplinary tool that historians, folklorists, and anthropologists use to get information from people who were present for specific events. This technique results in a primary source and ensures that peoples’ memories of an event are not lost before they are recorded. Oral history is an important way in which scholars from various fields can engage with the public in a collaborative effort to preserve the past.


Oral History Resources

Introductions to Oral History

Oral History Association, About


The Oral History Association (OHA) is the most important professional organization for people who practice oral history. Their website has a number of resources and best practices, so it can be helpful to just poke around it when you’re just getting started. This website can give you a good overview of how oral historians approach interviews and preserve them once they’re recorded.


Alessandro Portelli, A Dialogical Relationship: An Approach to Oral History


Alessandro Portelli is an internationally renowned Italian oral historian. Here he talks about the nature of oral history, important concepts to keep in mind during an interview, and the importance of relationships in oral history.


General Interviewing Guidelines

UC Berkley Bancroft Library, Oral History Tips


Since 1954, the Oral History Center at UC Berkley has carried out interviews capturing various histories. This short blog post summarizes some of the Center’s best tips on how to do an oral history interview. Oral History methodology centers the narrator as storyteller and the interviewer as listener. The tips provided here by the OHC offer helpful tips on how to keep your oral history interview from turning into a two-sided discussion.


Baylor University, The Heart of Oral History: How to Interview


The Institute for Oral History at Baylor University is a great resource for oral historians. This particular link discusses the benefits of open-ended questions and how these types of questions can help an interviewer build a stronger relationship with their narrator. As a narrator, you can also use verbal and non-verbal cues to show your narrator you are actively listening to, and engaged with, what they are saying.


Texas Historical Commission, Fundamentals of Oral History Texas Preservation Guidelines


The Fundamentals of Oral History, published by the Texas Historical Commission, is a valuable resource for any oral historian. This document discusses the history of the field and its applications, as well as provides an introduction to oral history methodology.


Remote Oral History Tech Tips

Bowdoin University, Bowdoin & COVID-19 Oral Histories – Tips


Oral History usually emphasizes in-person interviews, but that style of interviewing is not always doable for a variety of reasons. This document concisely offers tips for people who are engaging in remote interviews.


 Transom, Recording During The Coronavirus Pandemic


The second half of this article, subtitled Remote Recording, provides an in-depth look at the technology being used to record remote interviews. When doing remote interviewing, there are many unexpected issues that may arise. This article seeks to acquaint the interviewer with those issues, as well as provide information that will result in a better-quality audio recording.




When you hit the record button on Zoom, it records audio in .m4a format. What we really want for long-term storage is a .wav file, and Audacity won’t even open .m4a. I have been using the free site Convertio to convert the .m4a files Zoom puts out to .wav. files.



Public History Resources

Introduction to Public History


National Council on Public History, How Do We Define Public History?


The National Council on Public History serves as one of the major resources for Public Historians. In this short blog post, the NCPH tackles the definition of Public History and seeks to explain how it is used by historians today. Public History is a more active form of history that seeks to explore real-world issues using history.


Important Concepts in the Field

Social History


This article gives a good overview of “social history”, which is a methodology closely related to oral history. It is about doing history from the “bottom up” and much more concerned with what regular, everyday people in the past were doing as opposed to world leaders. It sees the need for including everybody’s voices, whether or not they have power.


Sources and Silences


This is a review and summary of Silencing the Past, a seminal work in public history. In it, Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot argues that the stories we tell about history are always the product of silencing alternative ways of looking at the past. The reviewer sums it up by saying it is “a book about how history is created by historians.” Trouillot makes the distinction between history as what happened on one hand, and that which is said to have happened as the other.

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