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Oral testimony


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Oral testimony can be described as the oldest type of evidence. Before people started to write down or otherwise record their history, they passed information from generation to generation through story-telling. It still goes on today. How do you know about the lives of your grandparents, your Mum, your Dad, other family members? Probably because you have heard them talk about it to you or to other people. It's not hard to understand therefore why oral testimony is such an important source of evidence.

However, it hasn't always been recognised as being important. Lots of historians in the past thought it was unreliable and preferred to rely on written evidence. They thought the story might have changed as it was passed down and that there was no way of checking whether what it revealed was true. This had lots of unfortunate consequences. Written sources tend to record the details of important, rich or otherwise noticeable people rather than ordinary people so a lot of information about the lives of people like you or me was lost.

But oral history never went away completely. Even in the 18th and 19th centuries efforts were made to record the thoughts and beliefs of all kinds of people on all kinds of subjects. A lot of these testimonies have survived albeit in written form. Think about the evidence found in Royal Commission reports to name just one example. Oral history experienced a renaissance in the 20th century when the whole business was made much easier by the invention of the telephone and recording equipment. Interviewing people had never been easier and their thoughts could be recorded for posterity.

So, how useful is oral testimony to historians today? The answer is simple - very! If we are careful about using it and treat it like any other kind of evidence we can find out a lot about the past. Oral testimony can tell us what life was like in the past, what people thought about various subjects, even how people talked.


Now that you have found about the different kinds of evidence that historians use, move on to the next section to find out about bias.

Go to the section on biasGo back to the previous source


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