While many species are capable of noting the passage of time, only humans have the capacity to record and pass along records of the past for generations, turning memories and recollections into “history.” Yet, tracking the passage of time and the broad, significant events that mark it isn’t the same as preserving an era through the stories of those who lived through it. At NWHS, we're striving to record memories of the past that make history engaging and dynamic, and preserving those more intimate recollections for future generations of students and scholars.
Who do we interview?
Our goal is to discover fascinating stories about the lives of women in the U.S. For that reason, we will interview any person, regardless of age and gender, to record stories about their lives, the lives of women in their family, or women in their community. We understand that first-hand experiences of history are finite, fragile, and frequently lost, so we believe that everyone can contribute to our understanding of history and can help us to preserve it by contributing to our collection. If anyone has a story to tell, we will listen.
Why do we interview?
Oral history is a unique form of historical research that excavates the memories and personal experiences of the people that are close to it or have lived through it. Oral traditions have always played a significant role in the human experience, but in the past records of these traditions have often been reserved for those that are at the forefront of political or military endeavors, neglecting the stories of those that lived through history in different circumstances. Our goal is to make U.S. oral history collections fuller and more vibrant by including the voices of women, a subset of the population that is often overlooked in historical research.
What do they talk about?
There is no set agenda to our interviews. Our aim is to investigate the experiences that women have had in small towns and communities across the U.S., and we are here to listen to any insights that may be offered. Subjects are free to tell any stories that come to mind whether they are long or short, humorous or poignant, personal or tangential to the subject. We look for stories about women that have brought about change in their communities, as well as those who have worked to preserve traditions. We want stories about women that have lived through monumental changes, and we want to know about their daily lives. No matter what the story, we want to hear it.
Oral histories convey nuances of the human experience that are lost in academic summaries of an era. They relate large events on a micro-scale that demonstrate how those events actively changed the world, shaping it into the realities that we experience today. Oral histories illuminate a past that would otherwise be colorless.
If history textbooks reflect simple cause and effect, first-hand accounts preserve the spirit of an era. They help us to understand our past on a personal level and they help us to respect those that came before us, even if we don’t agree with their actions. The popular opinion about primary sources is that they are only valuable to scholars researching a specific topic; however, just think about the joy you feel when looking at a well-preserved photograph that was taken a century ago or the wonderment of reading about someone experiencing an event that took place before you were born. We typically feel safely distant from the tumultuous hills and valleys of history; yet, these photographs and documents remove that barrier, humanizing those people that lived through it and making us realize that we have not changed that much. Every photo and written account captures a ray of light in a unique moment of time that has long since slipped away but that we can revive, if only for a moment, in the current day.
Great thinkers and revolutionaries are not the only ones that can contribute to the historical record. To truly understand the past we need to hear the stories of those that are close to it and that are close to us. Many people possess books, photographs, and other catalogues full of historical documents that have been passed down for generations, but have never taken steps to preserve those historic treasures. In addition to oral histories, the NWHS database contains digital copies of these documents that will be preserved for posterity.