The past has gone, so we can never experience even our own past again, much less anyone else’s. However, most historians believe that a sense of the past can be retrieved, and that contact with people who were involved adds an important extra dimension to research. Oral History is the usual name given to the recorded reminiscences which allow this. Where it is unique is the fact that it is deliberately gathered by the historian, who can ask questions until satisfied that they have obtained all the meaningful information available.
It has strengths and weaknesses, but there are things it can achieve, particularly in relation to the detail of ordinary life, where nothing else can compare. It is, of course, just one of many sources, and should always be combined with as many others as possible, rather than used alone. We have to act like detectives: picking a topic to investigate, and using all the available evidence to reach reasonable conclusions about it.
I first used this method in 1973, and it formed the basis of my PhD. I have returned to it intermittently, where it was appropriate for projects I was interested in, but most of my work lay beyond its reach. It is important to recognise such limitations. I have also encouraged and sometimes offered training to community projects. I feel the opportunities are greater than ever as recording is so easy today with digital equipment.