Essay on Critically Assess the Value of Oral Sources in Comparison to Written Documents

Published: 2021/12/01
Number of words: 6718

Oral sources are ‘an account of first hand experience recalled retrospectively, communicated to an interviewer for historical purposes’.[1] An oral source can be created concerning an event which happened recently, or many years previous. Other academic disciplines such as Sociology have their own definition.[2] During this essay I will assess the value of oral sources in comparison to written documents. This essay will be split into three subsections, the first concerned with the influence of the interviewer, the second with problems with the interviewee and the third exploring inherent problems. By viewing problems traditionally associated with oral sources, I will demonstrate that oral sources are of no less value than written documents, as although precise problems differ, criticisms such as bias can be levied against both source types.

Written history owes its origin to the use of oral sources which can be traced to as early as the Fifth Century BC, used by Herodotus. Thucydides in 431- 411 BC also based the majority of his study of the Peloponnesian Wars using the testimonies of oral sources.[3] In the ‘East’, oral sources were used by the emperor during the Zhou dynasty for the benefit of court historians.[4] During the Nineteenth Century oral sources were utilized by scholars such as Bancroft during his study of average citizens in the West of America, as written sources did not exist on the subject.[5] However during this period, the school of historiography which existed in this era diminished the value of oral history in comparison to the ‘science of documentary analysis’.[6] The use of oral sources became prominent again as new technological innovations such as hand held tape recorders and the telephone became available and were utilised by scholars such as Nevins.[7] This technology allowed anyone to partake in gathering oral history, causing an increased interest in the subject during the 1960s and 1970s, with studies of the working classes.[8] The use of oral sources has continued to increase and is an important part of modern historiography. This trend is set to continue as most individuals carry the equipment necessary to produce an oral source on a modern day smart phone.

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Some historians support the value of oral sources. Vanisina argues that oral sources are documents of the present as they are told in the present.[9] Thompson, a prominent oral source enthusiast, states that oral evidence can ‘show how things actually were’.[10] Some historians acknowledge oral sources and written documents are dissimilar, however this does not mean they believe oral sources are less valuable. Portelli argues the credibility of oral sources is equal to other methodology, although it has a divergence of hard and fast ‘facts’, it has rich imagination and symbolism.[11] I agree with this view, as value often derives from what a historian wishes to find for his own historical study. Despite the use of oral sources in modern historiography some historians are still sceptical, Taylor considers it individuals ‘drooling about their past’.[12] Tosh argues that written sources are more valuable than oral sources, stating that the rise in universal history makes the use of oral sources inferior.[13] Marwick concurs, stating that ‘history based on non documentary sources, like that of Africa is sketchier than history from documents’.[14] Views expressed by these historians do not appear to take into account problems which exist within written documents, an idea I will explore within this essay.

The Interviewer

The value of an oral source is dependent upon the rapport between the interviewer and the interviewee. This can prove problematic: if the subject responds well to the interviewer, then they may embellish facts wishing to impress. If they respond negatively, they may be less forthcoming. For example, historians from former West Germany found it difficult to interview individuals from former East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Some East Germans felt West Germans believed they were superior, causing them to be more cautious about the information they revealed.[15] During ‘Thatcher’s Britain’ there were protests against US military presence in Britain. An American interviewer was unable to get protesters to respond to his requests for an interview because of his nationality.[16] If the interviewer cannot form a positive and trusting relationship with the interviewee, there is a risk that the information given will either be limited or inaccurate. Sources also suggest that some form of social report will mean issues such as falsification and bias within answers will decrease, so it is in the best interest of the researcher to create a positive rapport.[17] Prejudice can be hidden within an individual’s psyche, demonstrated in a study which showed the colour of the interviewer affected the answers given.[18] Written documents are also subject to problems of this nature. For example, a non-EU based student requesting signatures for their campaign against regulations imposed upon them by the government, can influence individuals to sign out of social pressure rather than their own political views.[19] Although the rapport between the interviewer and interviewee can impact upon the reliability of a source, written documents also suffer from similar issues, showing they are of equal value.

The wording of questions the interviewer asks can have a direct affect on the answers given. This is an issue which uniquely affecting oral sources; however written documents can also be influenced by outside factors. Using the word ‘really’ within a question illustrates that there is some scepticism from the interviewer in what he is asking. This will make the individual conscious of the interviewer’s bias and could influence the answer given. Caunce gives the example of asking ‘how did you get on with your parents’ rather than ‘did you like you parents’, as the second has negative inference.[20] There are other examples of biases that reduce the quality of oral sources. There are known examples of historians telling their subjects what to say for ‘completeness’.[21] However, an outside influence can also affect the value of a written document. A letter from a First World War soldier would be influenced by several factors. They may describe their situation as less horrific to elevate the fears of the recipient. They would also be aware that they had to conform to the censor’s strict guidelines; otherwise they would face reprisals or have information within their letter totally eradicated. As the accuracy of both source types can be influenced by an outside influence, it would be wrong to devalue oral sources alone for this flaw.

It takes experience to perform an interview and avoid inadvertently manipulating responses. Unfortunately inexpert postgraduates with little training are often used to perform interviews.[22] High reflects on his career as an oral historian for a local museum, guidance consisting of being given equipment and being told to ‘go interview old people’.[23] The same argument can be used against journalists, particularly as many writers are freelance with no formal qualification. Inexperienced workers can also influence the accuracy of data. A job such as data entry is generally performed as a starting occupation; this lack of experience can lead to mistakes. A mistake made during the creation of a written document will impact upon the accuracy of a historian’s argument. This demonstrates that both sources are of equal value as they are often both created by inexperienced individuals who are more likely to make mistakes.

The personality and biases of a historian also affects how a source is interpreted. For example, if the historian is personally not familiar with a particular dialect used within an interview, or words within a written document created within a different time period, the source can be interpreted incorrectly. Although the historian cannot affect the wording of a source, like within an interview, their interpretation will arguably impact upon its meaning. This demonstrates that both oral and written sources are of equal value. Unlike an oral source which is influenced during its creation, a historian can give the source value or diminish it through their interpretation of both written and oral sources.

Thompson particularly emphasises the notion that oral history is able to provide a forum for those who have been ignored due to the elite nature of traditional history.[24] Particularly within Western scholarship, there is a perception that oral history can promote equality by giving average individual a voice, as written documents favour the rich and famous.[25] This has been viewed as something that greatly appreciates value to oral history. However, it is the researcher who chooses who to interview. Oral sources are not a democracy which allows anyone a say regardless of their social position or education, they are merely those selected by the historian. Inevitably a sample can also be self-selecting, rather than an objective random sample. This can cause bias as those who refuse to be interviewed may have certain qualities in common.[26] Major oral projects are still done by elite institutions such as the Kennedy oral Projects of the Imperial War Museum.[27] Therefore the elites still have influence over the study of history, even if they decide not to focus on elite issues. This negates the argument that oral sources are demographic equalisers. It is also arguably a misconception that oral sources are the primary method of study for ‘bottom up’ history. Written sources can contain much valuable information for studying the lives of average individuals. Wage sheets can show the experiences of the working class when cross referenced with price and rent statistics. Other written documents have also given the working class a similar forum of expression, such as opinion polls. The argument that oral sources are of more value away from top down historical studies appears to be redundant, both types of sources can be utilised for such a study.

The Interviewee

The factual accuracy of a source is often dependant upon memory. Psychologists and historians alike have performed countless studies to test the fallibility of memory. Hoffman performed a study on her husband which showed memory of chronological facts diminished over time.[28] Another test proved that the consistency of memory is reduced to 63.6% just a year after an event.[29] Even historians who support the use of oral history admit that anything close to a photographic memory diminishes after only a few minutes.[30] Memory can be affected by more than just the passage of time, traumatic experiences can be repressed and hard to recall. There is the possibility that what we perceive to be our memory is affected by ‘myths’ or ‘collective memory’. The interviews following the death of Transtulli provides evidence to suggest that memory can be shaped by the collective view of an event, rather than factual recall.[31] There are also examples of individuals claiming they remember incidents during the Blitz which they were not witness to, arguably as they have become immersed in the Blitz myth.[32]

As memory is fallible, this will negatively impact on the value of sources which oblige it, depending on the time that has elapsed since the event. Various written documents also require memory for accuracy. Autobiographies require a subject to delve into their memory, meaning they are as predisposed to the issues experienced concerning memory reduction and myth which affect oral sources. Diaries rely upon the writers short term recall, although the chronology is set by the format of the diary. The fallibility of memory will impact upon any written document which is retrospectively written. Both written and oral sources can require memory; it is dependant on the subject matter within the source, not the type, which shapes its value.

In some cases erroneous facts do not affect the sources value; particularly if a historian’s study does not require facts to support their argument. A source will be considered more valuable by a historian if it contains information that can aid their historical research. Oral sources are often perceived to be more effective at portraying emotion.[33] If a historian is studying emotion they may well value oral sources above written documents. Feminist historians argue that emotion is just as important as facts contained within some written documents.[34] Historians of this opinion would be particularly interested in Passerini works, which showed people omitted the fascist years when recalling memories of Italy. [35] The information which is not told within a dialogue can, in some cases, be used as evidence. The study of human emotion merges the study of history with psychoanalysis. Historians such as Thompson have embraced this hybrid discipline, attempting to utilise psychoanalytical skills within their research.[36] If a historian is studying emotion, then an oral source is arguably of more value, however it is the historians own study which gives the source its value rather than its type. Both sources are of equal value as another historian will fail to see the value of a particular source as their own study may not require it.

Arguably written documents can also be valuable to the historian when studying subjects like emotion. The written word can depict sentiment just as successfully, for example Portelli found immigrant letters he was studying particularly poignant.[37] Interviews do not always convey emotion, as not all are concerned with emotive subjects. One must view what the source contains rather than judge it based upon its type. Similarly, just because a fact is written does not make it factually correct. This is arguably demonstrated through trivial, rather than factual information contained within publications such as OK Magazine. Memory is also not always incorrect and can often contain facts which evade written documents, for example details on those who were registered for private evacuation in order to receive billeting allowance but did not evacuate.[38] Retrospective interviewing has also shown early Twentieth Century marriage rates were inaccurate, as those who had not obtained parental permission, (despite needing it), were not contained within some documents.[39] All sources should be scrutinized for their accuracy as both can contain incorrect information.

Individuals within oral and written sources can fabricate their answers. For example, some citizens posed as survivors of the Italian Libyan War in interviews in the hope this would give their claims for veteran benefits legitimacy.[40] The value of a source can diminish due to the awareness that an interview or document for the purpose of historical study. The presence of a researcher with recording equipment can modify the answers given. Responses may be adapted to fit the criteria of what the interviewee believes the historian wants to hear. The expectation that the interview could become part of a published work could also lead them to exaggerate their part in an incident. A story constantly told may have been modified through the retelling. For example the interviews with Rossini on the subject of his meetings with Beethoven which became more exaggerated as time went on.[41] If an individual falsifies their claim to suit the small audience partaking in the interview it seems logical some may wish to also impress the wider audience listening to the interview. Becker’s experiments found those in group interviews would exaggerate events in order to impress others taking part in the interview.[42]

Although some documents would have been created with little thought to their future historical importance, other written sources would have had this realisation during construction. Goebbels published a portion of his diaries after Hitler became Chancellor in 1933; however these were edited versions, telling only what Goebbels saw necessary for propaganda purposes. Diary entries made shortly before and during the Second World War period would have been made with awareness that what was written would be scrutinized. Portraying the Nazi Party and Hitler in a favourable way could be beneficial to maintaining power and popularity during an assumed extensive period of rule. There are also distortions and mistruths within Service’s biography of Trotsky, potentially an attempt to discredit him in the eyes of history.[43] Admittedly, oral sources have an advantage in that interviewees can be directly questioned, however some written documents were created with little awareness of their historical purpose, meaning they are less vulnerable to these issues. However as both source types can be vulnerable to intentional falsification it is individual sources which are devalued, not a particular source category, meaning they are both of equal value.

Oral sources and written documents which contain retrospective thought are attempting to remember the past in a present day context. This can cause a tension between ‘lived experiences and their crystallised representation’.[44] Changes in values and an attempt to conform to the social norms of the present can mean that interviewees do not properly express an event with just memory. For example, when French Bakers were interviewed their experiences whilst an apprentice was told differently depending on their future career. Those who had become masters, described the experience as educational, whilst those who remained workers emphasised that the job was tiresome.[45] However, context can aid the accuracy of a source, for example older people may be more accurate in their story as they are less likely to exaggerate, and they may be less inhibited by the need to conform or gain recognition.[46] Also, present context may mean some subjects become easier to discuss, such as homosexuality in the armed forces during World War Two.[47] This was once a taboo subject, but it is now generally acceptable to discuss more openly, leading to more honesty as there is less reason to conceal information. But the time elapsed allows the individuals memory to be contaminated by new experiences and changing morals or outside influences. For example, a former factory worker was interviewed about his previous career. The interviewee surprisingly reflected negatively about his time in employment; however it was late revealed that this was because he had recently been refused a medal by the factory.[48] Written documents which are constructed retrospectively will also be similarly affected; it is not a unique phenomenon only impacting oral sources. An interview can also be taken during an event, such as those taken by news reporters during the London riots in 2011;[49] this would still mean information given is constrained but by present social constrains. That would also impact upon any written source which was created about a recent event. In this sense, both oral and written sources are of the same value as both can be constructed retrospectively or during an event, meaning they are both equally constrained or aided by the effects of time and context.

Inherent flaws

Both written and oral sources could potentially be forgeries or became damaged, preventing comprehension, equally devaluing them to the historian. Once an interview is complete there are two primary methods of archiving the information. The recording itself can be kept, or the historian can transcribe the interview. When there is no recorded interview in existence anyone using the source becomes reliant on the information provided by the researcher who conducted the interview, therefore there is potential for evidence to be falsified. However written documents can also be the falsified, such as the forgeries used by CBS News when questioning the record of George W Bush during his service in the Texas National Guards.[50] There are methods to test the authenticity of a document but such techniques are not infallible.[51] Even when interview recordings are kept there is the potential that there can be mechanical faults which mean the quality is substandard. Caunce had mechanical issues after a strip of foil on the leading edge of the tape got stuck in front of the machines recording head; this meant not all the sound could be heard.[52] The passage of time and other occurrences can also affect the quality of written documents. This is seen during the 1993 floods in the Mid-West of America which led to books and personal papers suffering irreparable damage.[53] Even though there is more trepidation surrounding a source which relies on modern technology, there are similar problems which can exist with written documents, showing as a source type they are of equal value to the historian.

There are often ethical issues surrounding the use of some oral and written sources which can devalue them. For example, a farmer interviewed by Beblasio informally asked the researcher to withhold parts of the interview pertaining to his marketing tactics as they would encroach upon his competitive edge.[54] Similarly, after signing a legally binding consent form an Amish family interviewed with a tape recorder requested that their interview not be published.[55] Interviews are often conducted with the emotionally traumatized and elderly, who may disclose information they would have preferred to conceal, causing one to question whether these sources should ethically be used. The argument can be used for various types of written documents. Letters, diaries and other seemingly confidential written works were often never intended for scrutiny, yet are often used as evidence. Oral sources admittedly are created whilst the individual is still alive, at least in this scenario an interviewee has given some permission for the information given to be studied. However, what is said within a dialogue can have repercussions on the lives of the interviewee, assuming they are still alive when the source is archived and used as historical evidence. In the case of the aforementioned farmer, even a pseudonym would not have been helpful. This raises ethical issues about whether the information given should be used or made public as it could have an impact on people’s lives. This ethical debate can also surround written documents, one can consider the difficulty in deciding whether it is right to disclose documents concerning the 1989 Hillsborough disaster as it could infringe on confidentiality and negatively impact on the lives and careers of various former junior civil servants.[56] Written and oral sources can be equally devalued on ethical grounds. The potential impact and confidential information within the source is the primary consideration when evaluating a source, whether the source is spoken or written is not a consideration.

There are occasions when only one type of source is available for aiding historical reconstruction; in these circumstances it is appropriate to see one type of source as more valuable. Vansina particularly values oral sources as they are often the only available evidence.[57] The practice of using oral sources when written ones are unavailable has occurred throughout the study of history. For example William of Mamsebury used oral sources in his Twelfth Century chronicles as there were no written documents available on his study subject.[58] This is particularly the case for historians studying West Africa, as historical events within the region were retained and told to the next generation by Griots, rather than through written documents.[59] The spoken word precedes the written word and often written documents are not available. For some studies, written sources are the only data available, for example Victorian mortality rates is arguably information exclusively recoverable from a written source. However, it must be noted that oral sources are often more effective at filling in gaps historians have in their knowledge, as written documents do not always address a specific historical question like an interview can. If possible, both oral and written sources should be equally utilised when performing historical research. If one type of source is unavailable this does not mean the other should be considered the gold standard, as it still needs to be approached with the same scrutiny. On occasions when only one type of source is available, it seems logical that one considers that category of source more valuable than the other, but only for that specific area of study. This does also mean that generally, both sources are of equal value, as there appears to be a proportionate number of occasions when both types of source are unavailable for use.


Although their precise limitations differ I believe oral and written sources are equal in value. An oral source can be affected by the rapport between the interviewer and interviewee, whilst some written documents such as petitions are influenced by issues surrounding interaction. Although a written source is not impacted upon by the construction of a question, another form of outside influence can still affect its content. For example, the content of a letter will be affected by who the intended recipient is. Those who aid the construction of oral and written sources are often inexperienced, meaning mistakes can occur within the content of both source types. Even though a written document is unaffected by the historian at its foundation, the historian’s biases, personality and topic of study will impact upon on how it is interpreted. I also argue that the theory which suggests oral sources are of more value than documents for studying the average individual is mistaken. Not only do some written documents aid the study of the working class, but interviews within oral source will be self-selecting and influenced by the historian; they are not a true democratic forum. Oral and written documents are of equal value in this sense; they can both be utilised for studies of the working class, which previously was a core argument in valuing oral sources above written documents.

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The accuracy of both source types can be affected by the fallibility of memory, as interviews and written documents are sometimes both created retrospectively. The content of a source is what will impact upon its value, not the type. For some historical studies it is emotion rather than factual content which is required for a historian’s study, in these cases some oral sources may have more value, but only to that historical study. This shows both source types are of equal value as the value derives from an individual historian’s study, what will have value to one historian will be redundant to another, and vice versa. Information within oral and written sources can be fabricated. Arguments that oral sources are more valuable because they allow for interviewees to be questioned can be negated because a number of written documents are created without knowledge of their historical importance; both source types have unique advantages boosting their value. Both source categories can be created using retrospect, for example autobiographical data or about a current topic, such as live interviews as an event occurs. They are then equally constrained or aided by whatever context and time they are created in. These are issues which exist within both written and oral sources, proving they are of equal value.

Despite a general misconception that technological sources are more suspect to problems such as forgery and damage, both types of sources can potentially suffer from these issues. It is not the type of source that will devalue it on ethical grounds, but what information is contained within it. When one type of source is the only source available for historical study, it is logical to view that category as more valuable. However, although oral sources can be used to fill in gaps written documents do not cover, there are proportionate incidents when a particular source type is unavailable, showing that generally they are of equal value. To conclude, although precise issues differ, criticisms can be levied at both types of sources, showing they are of equal value.


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[1] Trevor Lummis, Listening to history, the authenticity of oral evidence (London, 1987) p. 27

[2] Jan Vansina, Oral tradition as history (London, 1985) p. 27

[3] Ramon I Harris, Joseph H Cash, Herbert T Hoover, Stepehn R Ward, The practice of oral history, a handbook (Glen Rock, New Jersey, 1975) p. 2

[4] Thomas Lee Charlton, Lois E. Myers, Rebecca Sharpless, Thinking about oral history: theories and applications, (Plymouth, 2008) p. 7

[5] Ibid.,  p. 8

[6] Thad Sitton, George L. Mehaffy, Ozro Luke Davis, Oral history: a guide for teachers (and others), (Texas, 1983) p. 5

[7] Ibid., p. 5

[8] Ibid., p. 6

[9] Jaclyn Jeffrey, Glenace Edwall, Memory and history, essays on recalling and interpreting experience (London, 1994) p. 6

[10] John Tosh and Sean Lang, The pursuit of history, aims methods and new directions in the study of modern history, fourth edition (Harlow, 2006) p. 317

[11] Hugo Slim, Paul Thompson, Listening for a change, oral testimony and development (London, 1993) p. 155

[12] Peter Burke, New perspectives on historical writing, second edition (Pennsylvania, 2001) p. 120

[13] Lang, The pursuit, p. 4

[14] Burke, New, p. 120

[15] Molly Andrews, Shaping history, narratives of political chance (Cambridge, 2007) p. 24

[16] Andrews, Shaping, p. 18

[17] David K Dunaway, Oral history, an interdisciplinary anthology, second edition (Plymouth, 1996) p. 102

[18] Paul Thompson, The voice of the past, oral history (Oxford, 1984) p. 115

[19] Students not suspects, Goldsmiths students’ Union, <> (Accessed 2nd January 2012)

[20] Stephen Caunce, Oral history and the local historian (London, 1994) p. 149

[21] Ken Howarth, Oral history, a handbook (Stroud, 1998) p. 10

[22] Steven High, ‘Telling Stories: A Reflection on Oral History and New

Media’, Oral History, Volume 38, Number 1, (London, 2010) p. 104

[23] Ibid., p. 110

[24] Andrews, Shaping history, p. 41

[25] Howarth, Oral, p.6

[26] For example, some Vietnam War veterans will not speak on their experiences, for more information see, Interviewing Vietnam War Veterans, Don Norton, <> (Accessed 18th January, 2012)

[27] Caunce, Oral, p.10

[28] Sarah Barber and Corinna M. Penniston-Bird, History beyond the text, routledge Guides to using historical sources, , a students guide to approaching alternative sources (London, 2009) p. 108

[29] Dunaway, Oral, p. 100

[30] Thompson, The voice, p. 101

[31] Alessandro Portelli, The death of Luigi Transtulli and other stories, form and meaning in oral history (New York Press, 1991) pp. 1-28

[32] Thompson, The voice, p. 133

[33] Jeffrey, Memory, p. 8

[34] Penniston-Bird, History, p. 110

[35] Penniston-Bird, History, p. 108

[36] Raphael Samuel and Paul Thompson, The myths we live by (London, 1990) p. 6

[37] Portelli, The death, p. 47

[38] (J. Carr, personal communication, December 2nd 2010)

[39] Thompson, The voice, p. 95

[40] Vansina, Oral, p. 59

[41] Vansina, Oral, p. 10

[42] Thompson, The voice, p. 116

[43] Political biography and the historical lie: An examination of Robert Service’s Trotsky, David North, <> (Accessed, 15th January 2012)

[44] Marta Kurkowska-Budzan, Krzysztof Zamorski, Oral history: the challenges of dialogue (Amsterdam, 2009) p. 49

[45] Jeffrey, Memory, p. 5

[46] Thomspn, Voices, p. 121

[47] Penniston-Bird, History, p. 106

[48] Portelli, The Death, p. 65

[49] Eltham riots police videos, The Guardian, <> (Accessed 10th January 2012)

[50] Document Forgery, E notes, <> (Accessed 11th November 2011)

[51] Historical Document Authentication, Teressa Rose Ezell <> (Accessed 20th November 2011)

[52] Caunce, Oral history, p. 18

[53] Emergency salvage flood, damaged family papers, Preservation and archive professionals, <> (Accessed 10th January, 2012)

[54] Donna Marie DeBlasio, Charles F. Ganzert, David H. Mould, Catching stories: a practical guide to oral history (Ohio, 2009) p. 45

[55] Mould, Catching, p. 45

[56] Hillsborough disaster: MPs debate disclosure of secret documents – as it happened, The Guardian <> (Accessed 12th January 2012)

[57] Vansina, Oral, p. 199

[58] Lang, The pursuit, p. 311

[59] West African Griots, Gambia information site <> (Accessed 12th November 2011)

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