Historians, librarians, and archivists work hard to promote the idea that history is more than just boring dates and facts. One of the best ways to explore history as it was lived, rather than just memorizing a list of dates, is to delve into primary sources. Primary sources are documents, artifacts, and objects created by an individual or group as part of daily life.[1] Letters, newspapers, diaries, and even interviews can provide insight into a historical event or era that might be unavailable in any other source.

Oral histories, or interviews,[2] whether preserved as audio or video recordings or just transcripts, can provide a unique look into historical events. Interviews may be conducted by professional historians to document a specific historical event, but any person who has the time, interest, resources, and a minimal amount of training can produce a valuable interview.[3] Although interviewers may not intend to create a historical research tool, their materials become historical primary sources with the passage of time. For instance, the interviews conducted by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (available as transcripts on FRASER) were not created to serve as a historical record of the Financial Crisis of 2007-2009. Instead, their purpose was to investigate the causes of the crisis and how the complex elements of the financial system may have contributed to the crisis.[4] They do, however, provide some historical insights: The format of the interviews reveals how congressional committees investigate national crises, and the content of the interviews provides unique information from individuals directly involved in the crisis.

Some oral histories are conducted with an eye toward recording important events for posterity. They may occur either at the time of the event or after the fact. The Robert Hetzel Oral History Collection was born out of research Dr. Hetzel was conducting on the history of the Federal Reserve System. These informal interviews capture the discussions Hetzel had with notable economists associated with the Federal Reserve or the U.S. Department of the Treasury during the tenures of Federal Reserve Chairs Martin, Burns, Miller, and Volcker. Milton Friedman, Darryl Francis, and others talk about their time at the Federal Reserve Banks and the Board of Governors and their work with the Treasury or other financial institutions. These casual conversations (available as audio recordings and verbatim transcripts on FRASER) provide a great deal of information about the individuals themselves as well as their roles in the national economy.

Oral histories can be a rich source of historical details for research because they allow historical actors to tell their stories in their own words. The interviews available on FRASER provide valuable insight into important eras and events in American economic history.


[1] For a good review of primary sources, check out the Smithsonian’s web page: http://siarchives.si.edu/history/exhibits/stories/what-primary-source

[2] “Oral history” is a broad term that is often used to mean “interviews about historical topics” but can also include storytelling, conversations, and memoirs (see http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/oral/what.html). FRASER uses the terms interchangeably.

[3] DeBlasio, Donna M., Charles F. Ganzert, David H. Mould, Stephen H. Paschen, and Howard L. Sacks. Catching Stories: A Practical Guide to Oral History. Ohio University Press, 2009.

[4] Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. “The Financial Crisis Inquiry Report: Final Report of the National Commission on the Causes of the Financial and Economic Crisis in the United States.” U.S. GPO, 2011. https://fraser.stlouisfed.org/scribd/?title_id=5034&filepath=/docs/historical/fct/fcic_report_final_20110127.pdf

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