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Why Oral History is Important

Dr. Jim Leiker, historian at Johnson County Community College, prepared this short introduction about the importance of using oral histories to fill in the gaps in the historical record. The complete transcript of his remarks follows the video.


Hi, I’m Dr. Jim Leiker, professor of history at Johnson County Community College. Welcome to the Kansas Oral History Project. Our purpose is to collect, preserve, and make available for general use these stories about life in Kansas, especially those that pertain to public policy.

If I asked you to define history, you’d probably answer it’s the study of the past, right? That’s how most people would respond. But in fact, history is really about studying the present. The past is a mighty long time period, and it’s impossible to know and record everything that ever happened. We have to be selective, which is why professional historians constantly debate which events are influencing us now, and therefore are significant enough for us to remember.

We all do this for different reasons and in different ways. Imagine waking up tomorrow morning with no memory of what happened before you went to bed. With no knowledge about your own personal history, you’d have no idea who you are. We need history for identity.

Genealogists say that families need to know where their parents and grandparents lived, worked, got married, what crises they endured, and how they might be connected to another family on the other side of the planet, probably speaking a different language or practicing a different religion.

For most of us in modern times, history is studied through a national lens so that we understand how and why countries like the United States react the way they do when challenges emerge. It’s why educators emphasize the necessity of courses in government and social science so that ignorance of the political process does not add to the challenges that lie ahead.

Whatever the reason, history is necessary for understanding the present. And as the present changes, the questions we ask of history change as well. Answering those questions requires thinking about sources. After all, historians are not fiction writers. We don’t get to make stuff up. How do we know what happened in the past? Most people would say, “Because it was written down.” Major religions base their belief systems on recorded scriptures like the Bible or the Torah. Here in the USA, our system of government and our very rights are determined by the US Constitution, a written document.

Here’s the problem with written sources. They leave gaps. They tell us what was recorded on a given day but not always why, nor do they tell us if the person doing the recording did so with bias or reluctance. Nor how people of the time reacted when they heard the message.

Keep in mind that for most of the past, people didn’t read or write. Yet they had history nonetheless. They shared it through verbal traditions and family stories that transmitted cultural values across generations. It wasn’t only indigenous societies who did this. The very origins of western-based history itself lie in ancient Greece where the first historians, the first known historians like Thucydides and Herodotus, first began by interviewing living witnesses to key events. Oral history helps us reconstruct people’s daily lives. It helps fill in the gaps by focusing on emotions, memories, reactions, and lived experiences. Mostly it gets us past textbook generalizations to a deeper, richer understanding of how history really punches us in the gut. And sometimes what we learn from oral interviews even helps us identify mistakes in the written record and correct them.

That brings me finally to why Kansas history? We’ve all heard the jokes, right? About flyover country, Dorothy and Toto, or about the motorist on I-70 who spent a week making the six-hour drive across Kansas.

If you believe what coastal Americans say, and unfortunately I think too many Kansans do, then we live in the middle of nowhere. But here’s a news flash. We don’t. We live in the middle of everywhere. Here is where Eastern concepts of Manifest Destiny collided with Western Indians defending their homes. It’s where North and South clashed over slavery, starting a Civil War and a battle for civil rights that continues into the present. It’s where the Corn Belt meets the High Plains, where drought in the Western Kansas co-exists with flooding in the East, and where the descendants of 19th century European immigrants rubbed elbows with recent arrivals from Central America and Southeast Asia. Whatever complicated issue the United States has tackled, be it Prohibition, suffrage, segregation, or abortion, you can bet Kansans were tackling it first.

The editor William Allen White once said something to the effect of “As goes Kansas, so goes the nation,” and I believe him. Kansans met those challenges through civic education, by understanding the processes of government and policy making which require tough choices and pragmatic compromise. The careers of the people in these interviews embody those experiences. I hope you find their stories useful, and that they inspire you to create some stories and some history of your own.

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This six minute video of Dr. Jim Leiker, historian at Johnson County Community College, will give students a clear understanding of why history is important, and why oral history plays an important role in "filling in the gaps" in the historical record.

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