Our Approach

The role of the oral historian involves a race against time, for the survivors of Stalinism are aging. Stories are lost by the hour – by the minute –and for many, our organization provides the last hope that their lessons from suffering live on. Political prisoners are the witnesses of our totalitarian past. They are also the foundations of our future. We, as academic oral historians, are very aware of the responsibility that we owe this generation, as we undertake what too-often prove to be the final opportunities to listen and learn from insightful ex-prisoners’ thoughts. To achieve this we work with the following methodological tool:

Oral History Interview and Historical Biography

"The more concrete and diverse images of past
continuously melting into presence will be,
the more integrated mosaic of history
we will be able to put together."[1]

History, especially modern history, suffered during the communist regime not only by lack of chances to study some of the important topics, but it fell behind the western historical science even in terms of methodology. The specificity of modern history is the possibility of using written sources as well as testimonies and memories of people, who experienced the happening on their own. Historiography developed tools how to work with memories and life stories of these people, how to conduct interviews, analyse and interpret them and use them as historical sources. This is what is oral history used for. (...) and this is how we use it in our research.

Oral history has its characteristic importance for researches of posttotalitarian societies where no plurality of sources exist and where party and state documents prevail. These record only those moments and society moves that their authors considere significant only from their point of view. In the times of political changes both fragmenting and newly establishing institutions care about preserving and archiving of documents referring to their activities in a limited way only. Written documents do not record a number of key historical moments at all. Narratives and memories of the witnesses fill this gap and help to broaden our factual background.[2]

Let us begin with a question. What is oral history? Oral history is "a special method for identifying the reality of a society that is used in several of the human sciences. It is putting down life stories of people in the way they tell them."[3] The word oral clearly points at the fact that in this approach we deal with spoken, unwritten information. Its "special nature derives from the fact that they are unwritten sources couched in a form suitable for oral transmission, and that their preservation depends on the powers of memory of successive generations of human beings."[4] This gives us two important aspects: firstly oral history undertakes life experiences of human beings where the depth of the experience and the number of detailed facts are influenced by the memory of researched person(s). Secondly, the quality of the memory strongly depends on the way researcher asks for the data and on the way he/she preserves it. Oral history is therefore an interpretative method because the researcher comments on the recorded material and analyzes it. Equally important, the informant himself or herself provides the researcher with his or her own interpretation of historical data.

To be more precise: when defining oral history, the definition by Paul Thompson is useful. He identifies three aspects of oral history: 1) it provides material on individuals from whom or for whom very little written documentary evidence is available, 2) it provides with account of everyday life and work through oral history and 3) it provides people with an opportunity to interpret their own lives.[5] Oral history is a method that deals with professionals as well as average people, where interviewees can be but usually are not historians. The fruitful result is not based on an exact historical description of past. In oral history we seek the subjective value of it, for the informant's own reflection. It is a special method of dealing with history without using history books as primary sources of information. The aim of oral history is then to record the memories and experiences according to narrators who do not have to be professional in narrating. This is the most important characteristic that makes oral history data so different from other historical materials. "Oral history deals less with facts and cares more about historical consequences expressed by the lips of those who once experienced them."[6] According to this interpretative technique the interviewer is not an expert in interpreting but it is the narrator who interprets. His or her memories of action, thinking or meaning become facts. The researcher focuses on asking such questions that provoke the informant to share his own interpretation of historical events, usually influenced by feelings and personal impressions of the discussed period of time. The aim of such a field research is "to get close to the data in order that one can see how people interpreted their social relationships in the past."[7] Together with Burgess, I want to add "there is self selectivity involved in the sample of material available; they (informants) do not provide a complete historical record. Nevertheless, such material does provide a subjective account of the situation it records; it is a reconstruction of part of life."[8] That means interviewed people are given the chance to speak about those parts of their lives they consider important. "(...) we see oral history as an instrument using which we can learn more about the whole society in monitored period through an individual (...)".[9]

(by Tomáš Bouška) 

[1] Miroslav Vaněk, Orální historie ve výzkumu soudobých dějin, (Praha: Ústav pro soudobé dějiny AV ČR, 2004), p. 92.
[2] "Usage of the Method of Oral History", Center for Oral History at the Institute of Contemporary History of the Czech Academy of Sciences, http://www.coh.usd.cas.cz/.
[3] Zuzana Fialová, "Orálna história - s tvárou a menom" in Malé dejiny česko-slovenských vzťahov VI., (Bratislava: Milan Šimečka Foundation, 1996), p. 32.
[4] Jan Vansina, "Oral tradition and historical methodology" in David K Dunaway, Willa K. Baum, Oral History. An Interdisciplinary Anthology, (Aalnut Creek: Altamira Press, 1996), p. 122.
[5] Paul Thompson, "The Voice of the Past: Oral History" in R. G. Burgess, Field Research: A Sourcebook and Field Manual, p. 132-133.
[6] ibidem, p. 32.
[7] ibidem, p. 133.
[8] Robert G. Burgess, Field Research: A Sourcebook and Field Manual, (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 132.
[9] Miroslav Vaněk, Orální historie ve výzkumu soudobých dějin, (Praha: Ústav pro soudobé dějiny AV ČR, 2004), p. 103.