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Oral History Resources

Oral History

Oral history is defined by the Oral History Association as "a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events. Oral history is both the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word, and one of the most modern, initiated with tape recorders in the 1940s and now using 21st-century digital technologies."

Oral histories provide a vehicle to capture the stories of a diverse range of personal experiences that are are not represented in the historical record. It also gives the interviewee the opportunity to tell their story in their own words. Oral history depends on human memory and the spoken word.  Oral history interviews usually capture the life of the interviewee or a specific subject/topic the interviewee has experienced. 

For example: 

Life History - Life and history of Chinese Americans in the greater Los Angeles region.

Subject/Topic History -  Student experience during the COIVD-19 pandemic.      

Oral History Steps

  1. Develop your question/topic
  2. Plan the project. Consider the equipment you need, timeline, potential interviewee
  3. Conduct your preliminary research on your topic and develop interview questions
  4. Interview
  5. Process interview, which can include interview transcription.
  6. Evaluate your oral history
  7. Organize and present your results
  8. Consider preserving your oral history in an archive


The use of oral history has always maintained strong ethical obligations to fully inform interviewees on the use of their oral history recording. For more information on ethical issues regarding oral histories take a look at the following resources.

Do I Need Permission from the University?

Interviews as part of research projects sometimes fall under the category of "Human Subjects Research." Human Subjects Research requires oversight to ensure that research is being conducted ethically and protecting the privacy and rights of the interviewee. The Institutional Review Board (IRB) at Cal State LA sets guidelines and approves projects:

Oral History projects that DO NOT need IRB approval:

  • If data [interviews] are collected as part of a class assignment AND is kept within the classroom setting, it does not meet the definition of Human Subjects Research.
  • Oral history activities, such as open-ended interviews, that ONLY document a specific historical event or the experiences of individuals without intent to draw conclusions or generalize findings would NOT constitute "research" as defined by HHS regulations 45 CFR part 46.

Oral History projects the DO need IRB approval:

  • The activity involves a prospective research plan that incorporates data collection, including qualitative data, and data analysis to answer a research question;
  • AND The activity is designed to draw general conclusions (i.e., knowledge gained from a study may be applied to populations outside of the specific study population), inform policy, or generalize findings.
  • In order to be subject to the University's human research protections policies, the activity must meet both of the above standards. This determination will be made according to the procedures described in Section 7.1 above.

For more information please see the Oral History section of the Cal State LA Institutional Review Board's page on Research with Human Subjects

John F. Kennedy Memorial Library
California State University, Los Angeles
5151 State University Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90032-8300