This blog post was written by Fall 2014 SOHP Undergraduate Intern Rachel Worsham
As a history student at UNC, naturally, I spend most of my semester holed up in the library drowning in research paper after research paper. Doesn’t sound that bad, right? Well, not so much. Hours and hours of staring at books and jotting down hundreds of quotes had me asking, “Is this really the only way to experience history?” I could not pinpoint this in my earlier semesters, but I have come to realize that I was not turned off by the research itself, but with my sources, which were solely written. With this type of source, I felt I was not able to accurately understand the character of my research subject, and, for the most part, I was encountering the same type of author (those that were literate, wealthy, and prestigious enough to be published). It was not until I began my internship with the SOHP did I realize that the cure to my frustrations was staring me right in the face.
Studying and participating in the collection of oral history gave my interest in historical research a new lease on life. I discovered that experiencing history aurally rather than through text allowed me to better understand the speaker and his or her place in history. Oral history has the unique ability to capture not only the accent and inflection in a subject’s voice, but also the emotion exposed when speaking. This gives the historian the opportunity to put a voice and a distinct personality with each name and picture. Oral history certainly gave me the tools that I needed to finally fully understand my research subjects, allowing me to depict them more honestly and interpret them more effectively.
Perhaps my most favorite aspect of oral history is its focus on not only society’s elite movers and shakers, but also ordinary people. Over the years, I’ve found that it is very difficult to find the stories of your average student, janitor, or teacher in the University’s library. Without these testimonies it’s rather challenging to piece together an accurate historical record of a significant event. More importantly, without the stories of everyday people, whose story are we telling? Certainly it’s not a story everyone can relate to, as we are all not high-ranking activists, politicians, or intellectuals. In my experience, learning about feminism from local students, professors, and townspeople has allowed me to form an in-depth understanding of the movement and its effect on women like myself.
If my time with the SOHP has taught me anything, it’s that everyone’s life story is valuable and, as so well stated in our motto, “you don’t have to be famous for your life to be history.”