Oral History and Living Memories

Collecting living memories of the rich and varied history of the area helps to preserve our heritage and allows future generations to understand and appreciate it.

Horses pulling
Horses and cart on Cranborne Chase

We love to see photography of our towns, villages and events from years gone by.

We can see the things people have built and the objects around us, however often the human stories behind them, the tales of the living landscape, are lost.

History is all around us, everything we see around us is a part of the story. History tells us where we’ve come from, shapes who we are and shows us what we have done.

Sharing our stories and memories is really important, so we can understand and appreciate our past, as well as look forward to how we connect with our shared landscape in the future.

What is Oral History?

History doesn’t only exist in written text, film or photography. It resides all around us, within the living memories and the experiences of people that are in our communities and families – all we have to do is ask them.

This kind of history is called ‘Oral History’.

For most of human history, oral history was the only form of ‘history’. Reports of what happened and when, where passed verbally from person to person, and generation to generation.

This form of oral history still takes place all around us.

Everyone has a story to tell that is unique to them.

Some people have been involved in momentous historical events, like wars and natural disasters, or have experienced cultural shifts and societal changes.

Others have had lives filled with everyday joys and tragedies that reflect the world around us.

Some people have experiences to share of local industries, traditional crafts, and the environment and landscape.

The people around us not only have their own stories and experiences, they also carry the histories of their parents and grandparents with them too.

What is Oral history recording?

Oral History Recording is the practice of interviewing a person and recording their oral account of the past.

It requires various skills such as making contact with a person who is willing to share their story. It also requires skills as an interviewer, and the knowledge of how to use sound recording equipment to capture the interview.


What is its value of Oral History in the wider context?

Capturing an oral first-hand account of the past is a primary source of information.

The person we are interviewing has been a witness to the past, and it brings history alive in a way that is totally unique to that person.

Historical books or websites can’t tell us everything about the past. The majority of people are usually busy out in the world living their lives, rather than recording them for future generations.

Some people may not be confident in writing down a biography of their lives or feel as though they wouldn’t have the time. Oral history interviewing and recording provides a space for people to comfortably tell us their memories.

The more people who record their oral history, the more unique viewpoints on the past we will have.


Why is Oral History Significant? 

  • Oral history allows people whose voices might not otherwise be heard to share their experiences. The act of retelling life events can help people understand their lives and often contribute to a sense of wellbeing and identity both for individuals and communities.
  • Interviewers are able to ask questions left out of other records and to interview people whose stories have been untold or forgotten. At times, an interview may serve as the only source of information available about a certain place, event, or person.
  • Oral History recordings create a record of dialects, languages and interesting expressions.

Oral History and Dead Languages

We often think that the languages we use every day will be spoken for generations to come, however sometimes that isn’t the case. Many languages that have been passed down from various cultures have become ‘dead languages’ – meaning that they no longer have any native speakers. Latin, Sanskrit, and Coptic are examples of dead languages, which fell out of use at one point or another. This means that different pronunciations and dialects have been lost to time, and can only be interpreted through other means.

More recently, individuals have passed away who were the last speakers of their native languages. By making an oral record of languages we ensure its survival and possible future revival. Sanskrit and Latin were both revived and are today learnt and used.

A Woman names Boa Sr died in 2010, who was the last person fluent in the Bo language of the Andaman Islands, and the last member of her 65,000 year old tribe.


In 2022 a woman named Cristina Calderon died – she was the last person alive who spoke the Yamana language of the Yagan community from the extreme south of South America. 


Charlie Mungulda of Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory of Australia, was the last native speaker of the Amurdak language, he died in 2007.


Endangered and dead British languages

There are actually about 20 different endangered or critically endangered languages on the British Isles. Cornish is an endangered language, with only about 2,000 speakers left. Others include Classical and Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Manx, Irish, Jersey French and more. The Alderney French dialect, or ‘Auregnais’ died out in the middle of the 20th century. It lives on in the memories of just 2 residents on the island of Alderney and in place names on the island. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to make oral history recordings of these endangered languages and dialects for future generations?

How can Oral History recordings be used?

  • Museums and societies will sometimes store and keep oral history recordings. The British Library collect oral history recordings that tell us about different aspects of life in the UK.
  • Oral history recordings can be hosted online on platforms such as youtube, for anyone to access. This increases education, knowledge and understanding across different generations and different parts of the world.
  • Oral history recordings can be used as part of a wider history project about an area, topic or past event. These recordings serves as a primary source of information. When a witness to history records their first hand account, historians can access this information at a later date. This serves as far more of an authentic piece of information than a second hand account of the interview written down or remembered at a later date.