One of the most common ways in which we all learn about our own familial or community history is by word of mouth, through the stories told from parent to child, from elders to the young. We are comfortable with this way of constructing our individual histories, and supplement these stories by poring over old photographs (and more recently, videos) and letters, or the odd note inside a fraying book. But oral history – recording people’s experiences and insights through their own narratives – also has an important place in building and preserving collective memory. In recent years, there has been an increasing focus on gathering narratives from all sections of society, so that we can archive memories of different kinds, and so that historians of the future will have a more diverse set of records on which to base their understanding of the past.
Today, there are thousands of projects around the world that aim to create such archives, focusing also on gathering voices that have so far been marginalized or overlooked. Dr Indira Chowdhury, an archivist who now works with Srishti School of Design in Bangalore speaks of the “fascinating stories that emerge” when you begin to talk to people from different spaces in society. Dr Chowdhury has been building oral history archives for a variety of projects, from capturing the institutional memory of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research to helping the NGO Naandi understand how schools are working in rural communities. She interviewed scientists and administrators for the first, and children, parents, and teachers for the second, listening to their experiences and anecdotes, and from these making sense of a certain phenomenon or period. “Oral histories also play a role in clarifying the present,” she notes.