Oral Histories in Libraries and Archives 1


Oral histories are a great resource for the genealogist. Many libraries and archives have oral histories in their collections. Seeking out oral histories is something every genealogist should have on their "To-Do List".


Oral histories usually consist of voice recordings of people who are telling their life story or recounting their personal experience during a particular event. Oral histories can also be found in print or transcribed interviews. Maybe the person recounted their story to someone and then their story was typed up like a transcribed conversation or Q & A format.

For instance, in the Houston County, TN. Archives we have oral histories of surviving WWII Veterans on video that were collected in the 1990's. Sadly, many of these Veterans are now passed on but we have their voices and images on video as they recount their service during the war. These same oral history videos have also been transcribed and made available in written format to researchers.


Many oral histories are of local residents telling about their experiences growing up in the area or recounting their personal experiences during The Great Flood, The Big Tornado or The Historic Hurricane. Natural disasters affected our ancestors as they affect us today and some of these stories have been captured on video, audio or in written transcripts.

A few years ago, our local historical society recorded a local lady who was celebrating her 100th birthday and recounted her life as far back as she could remember which was back to age 5. The history of her life, the community she lived and her experiences is now part of our oral history collection in the archives. Unfortunately, she is no longer with us but her wonderful memories will remain forever.

Oral histories are not normally available on the shelves in the research area of a library or archive. The researcher will have to ask if such oral histories exist. The librarian or archivist should be able to supply the researcher with an index of what is available. Once you have found one that interests you, ask for the recording or transcript to be brought to you to examine. If it is video or audio, the archives should have the specific machine needed to play the recording. If the oral history is in written format, they should bring you the transcription. Sometimes oral histories are found in and among different Manuscript Collections, in which case, they should be mentioned in the Finding Aid.

Sadly, there are not a tremendous amount of oral histories available online. So, try not to be too disappointed if there isn't one for your particular ancestor. It is still a good idea to listen to or read oral histories by others in the community that experienced the same events during the same time period that your ancestor did. This is a great way to get a sense of what your ancestor saw, heard and experienced themselves.

I would also encourage you to obtain oral histories from your oldest family members, or any of your family members. Recording their life experiences in any format will hopefully guarantee their information and memories are remembered and cherished for generations to come. While you’re at it, why not record your own memories and experiences. Only you know how and why things happened and only you know what you have experienced during your lifetime.

So, add Oral Histories to your genealogy "To-Do List" and be sure to ask the archivist about them on the next research trip or contact with the archive.


About Melissa Barker

Melissa Barker is a Certified Archives Manager for the Houston County, TN. Archives. She also lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation. She writes her own blog and has written articles for several publications. She is affectionately known as The Archive Lady. She is also a Professional genealogist that works with clients researching their Tennessee ancestors.

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One thought on “Oral Histories in Libraries and Archives

  • Larry Naukam
    Larry Naukam

    Absolutely! My uncle, who is now passed. recorded a full hour of one. He never talked about his time in the service in WW II, but now we have heard and seen him talking about his life.