Oral history


The archaeological artefacts from Keezhadi excavation show evidence of a well-developed Tamil script and civilisation already in 6th century BCE. The existing printed Tamil literature is from the three periods of the Sangam era, which is calculated to be between 3rd century BC to 3rd century AD.

It is important to notify that development of script and writing practices do not automatically lead to creating, capturing records and archiving. Lack of capture of records leads to no archive. And no archive leads to no documented history. But it is also important to underline that lack of documented history does not mean that history did not exist.

On the other hand, the sea trade of Tamils with the Roman Empire in the Sangam Era indicate that documents must have been created for their sea trade administration. That means, there must have been a record-keeping and archiving system. The only preserved and available archival documents about the Tamil trade with the Roman Empire are foreign archival materials. For instance, the English translation of the Greco-Roman periplus, “The Periplus of the Erythrean sea” (1912)1, by Wilfred H. Schoff. The original manual is a manuscript document that lists the ports and coastal landmarks. It includes approximate intervening distances, that the captain of a vessel could expect to find along with a shore. It contains the business practice in the sea trade, the laws to be followed at the ports (customs), details about the traders that came from Roman, Arabia, and various places in, nowadays, India to the ancient Tamil country2 in South India. As well as the business events and details about major trade items.

Another evidence for administration is the ancient seals. These seals are from the Sangam era found at the sixth phase of the Keelazhi excavation. According to Dinamalar National Daily, these are seals of the ancient tortoise image. These may have been used to identify people leaving and entering countries, and may be assigned by the authorities to monitor this. It is said that the seals have been used to effectively manage and identify outsiders.

Dinamalar National Daily, 26th August 2020.

When Tamil has such an ancient history for its script, written practice, civilisation and administration why did record-keeping and archiving practices evolve to oral history?

Recorded documents protect the continuity of history. There are various continuing factors for the lack of recorded documents among Tamils. For instance, migration, invasion, colonisation, seize of governance, war and militarisation. Consequently, it has brought a necessity to document and preserve3 the surviving oral history into text, audio or video formats. Documenting oral history in text, audio or video format is a form of reconstruction or representation of history. It is not a pre-planned or directed or edited entertainment or commercial media production. However, it might have some amendments based on privacy policy and confidentiality of people that are involved in the recorded oral history.

The author of this article has been interviewing the first generation of migrated Tamils in Norway for another historical book project. It was not started as a project of DsporA Tamil Archive. The prepared interview guide for the historical book project is modified and given here.

In the conjunction of the local history book project, the author of this article was also in contact with Memoar and Minner.no. The collected information is given here as experience and knowledge sharing about oral history.

  • What is oral history?
  • Oral History: Interview guide
  • Oral History: Interview process
  • Oral History: Advantages and Disadvantages
  • Oral history vs. audio-, visual- or text-based media production
  • Oral History: Formats
  • Oral History: Examples
  • Oral History: Privacy and freedom of speech
  • Oral History: Ownership
  • Oral History: Origin
  • Oral History: Preservation and use
  • Aavanaham.org
  • Minner.no
  • Memoar – norsk organisasjon for munnleg historie (Memoar – Norwegian organisation for oral history)
  • Open invitation from Memoar

What is oral history?

Oral history is a process of documenting oral tradition. «Oral tradition, also called orality, the first and still most widespread mode of human communication. Far more than “just talking,” oral tradition refers to a dynamic and highly diverse oral-aural medium for evolving, storing, and transmitting knowledge, art, and idea» from one generation to another generation.

“Oral History collects memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews. An oral history interview generally consists of a well-prepared interviewer questioning an interviewee and recording their exchange in audio or video format. Recordings of the interview are transcribed, summarized, or indexed and then placed in a library or archives. These interviews may be used for research or excerpted in a publication, radio or video documentary, museum exhibition, dramatization or other form of public presentation. Recordings, transcripts, catalogs, photographs and related documentary materials can also be posted on the Internet. Oral history does not include random taping, such as President Richard Nixon’s surreptitious recording of his White House conversations, nor does it refer to recorded speeches, wiretapping, personal diaries on tape, or other sound recordings that lack the dialogue between interviewer and interviewee.”

Donald Ritchie

Sea trades of Tamils indicate that there must have been an existence of an administrative record-keeping and archiving system among Tamils during the Sangam periods. Parallelly, their oral tradition, such as folklore and others. But now, even administrative record-keeping and archiving are also evolving over to oral tradition. This is especialy a widespread situation in the diaspora.

Oral History: Interview guide

The author of this article created interview guides for a book project about how Tamil migration to Norway has developed Tamil education in Norway. This is a self-initiated project by the author to document the local history of Tamils in Norway. It was not started as a project of DsporA Tamil Archive.

The interview guides are modified to meet the topic, “migrated life of Tamils in Norway”. This guide is created for the Norwegian context. However, the questions in this guide can apply for Tamils in other diaspora countries. But it might be necessary to modify the questions to fit the context of other respective diaspora countries.

Oral History: Interview process

Step 1:

The guide can be used as an inspiration or as a guide to carry out an interview. Select suitable questions from this guide that are relevant for your interview object, interview environment and context, within the framework of “Migrated life of Tamils in Norway”. During an interview, the story told by the interview object might generate other questions within the interviewer. If the questions are relevant to the purpose and context of your interview, let those questions to be asked.

Another method is to let the interview object start to tell his/ her story freely within the given framework. Then, if necessary, ask questions from your prepared interview guide to keep on track and to bring in any forgotten aspects.


  • It should be open questions. The questions should not lead the interview objects to give a YES or NO answer. OR the questions should not lead to the interview object to tell a favourable answer.
  • Do not go into discussions. You as an interviewer might or might not agree with the story or information that an interview object is telling you.
  • You are only a listener and not a defender!

Step 2:

After the recording. Give the audio or video file to the interview object to allow the person to check if the information in a record is fine to be preserved.
If any amendments, they need to be edited.

Step 3:

Signing a consent form with specifications about how the material can be used and preserved.

Step 4:

Make arrangements for storing and preserving the documents.

Minner.no method

When DsporA Tamil Archive contacted Minner.no, we got knew that they do also have a similar process. But they focus on oral history as research materials and therefore they have a detailed consent form for research purposes. However, the consent form is intermediary to make the file available at the website, either with an open or close access plan. This is a temporary consent form that has a valid until the interview object can take over the responsibility to administrate the file. It means that the person can withdraw the file at any time or leave the file on minner.no for eternity.

Memoar method

The “Memoar method” for oral history is available as a manual located on their website. They do not have a guide or template for interviews as an interview project can cover various themes and one guide cannot cover all themes or topics. But they have courses regularly. These courses are especially aimed at groups/ organisations that are interested in documenting certain topics or areas. Typically, it is local history teams, museums or schools that are about to celebrate their anniversaries or similar that participate in such courses. Memoar can also run courses online and can hold courses in English. But among the participants or topics, there must be some connections with Norway.

Oral History: Advantages and disadvantages
  • This is a great way to save undocumented history that might be endangered or is about to extinct.
  • It can give voice to people who cannot write as well themselves, and people whose stories are not documented in other ways.
  • People telling their own stories also give their perspectives on the topic.
  • Audio or visual history told by an involved person gives the closest representation to a particular time or period even after 50 and 100 years.
  • History in audio or visual gives another dimension that text might not give.
  • Documenting a history of several decades in audio or video is time saving rather than writing 50 years of history.
  • A useful way of documenting the past to give an overview of a topic, person, thing, period or phenomena.
  • An excellent tool for people who cannot read to know the history
  • The interview object might lose his/ her memory.
  • The accuracy of the details might be weakened.
  • The interview object might tell what they wished to gain rather than what they gained in reality.
  • Some will only talk about positive achievements and avoid talking about setbacks and challenges.
  • Oral history might create a selective history.

A user of an oral history document might search for other archival documents to verify details about a certain time, incident, action, transaction that are told in oral history. This will be a natural process in a research or production based on oral history. These disadvantages are important to note when one does source criticism (information evaluation). However, they should not discourage from doing oral history as the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.

Oral history vs. audio-, visual- or text-based media production

Documenting oral history lets the interview object talk freely without a pre-planned time limit. So oral history documentation can take more than one session. Normally a session can be between 1,5 – 2 hours or less. Another important element is that oral history documentation should not have any other purpose than documenting a history. This element makes oral history different from a journalistic or commercial interview that aims to get a piece of specific information within a time limit. They are normally edited for media production.

On the other hand, oral history is informal and casual audio or video recording of, for instance, a grandmother telling her life story to her grandchildren. Therefore oral history documentation can vary in duration from minutes to hours.

Oral History: Formats
Audio and video

The oral history can be documented either in audio or video formats. It is also essential to think about file size and available storage capacity. And more importantly, file formats that are capable of long-term preservation.


When it comes to text format, oral history recorded in audio or visual formats can be transcribed into text. But this transcription will be for the purpose of the finding aids at a library or archive.

The person herself/ himself can also write down their personal memories and experiences into a text document, but this is not categorised as oral history.
Handwritten personal memories can also be archived in different ways:

  • Handwritten papers can be archived as physical documents in a physical repository.
  • Handwritten papers can be scanned for digitalisation. The digital file can be archived in a digital repository.
  • Handwritten text can be computer typed documents. These files can be archived in a digital repository.

Scanned and then digitalised files, and computer typed files need to be exported as a PDF/A file format. This format is a variety of PDF that is an International standardised format for long-term archiving. But it is important to keep any physical documents as well as the digital file for authentication and verification.

Oral History: Examples

ROTA: Race On The Agenda – Through the Generations (Eelam Tamil Oral History, based in London)
Arbeiderminnene (The working memories)
British Library Oral History
Oral History in the Digital Age
Oral History Center
Over 600 oral histories of combat veterans
Vietnam War Era Veterans Oral Histories
Rosie the Riveter / World War II Home Front Oral History Project
Story Corps

Oral History: Privacy and freedom of speech

There are some guidelines that everyone should adhere to when it comes to privacy and freedom of expression in Norway.


According to Norwegian privacy policy a text, audio and video about a person is considered as private information. So, consent forms are important! The person being interviewed (audio/ video/ text) must approve that the person can be interviewed. And that the oral history record can be preserved at a repository. Memoar has two different principles:

  1. An interview can be preserved as research material. It means that the document is only available for research.
  2. An interview can be made openly available for the public.

The interview object needs to approve by signing a consent form. This consent form approves how the material can be preserved and made available. But the person needs to give an oral consent in the first part of the video/ audio recording that documents that the person has approved to be recorded. According to Noolaham, they do also have the same practice of getting oral consent at the beginning of a recording.

Here is the consent form of Memoar:

Freedom of speech

When it comes to freedom of speech, the people interviewed can freely talk about what they are interested in, but within the given framework. However, according to Memoar, they cannot demand that the interview be published. At this point, Memoar relates to press ethics where they act as editors for the content. If something may be harmful to third parties, Memoar does not publish the content. For instance, those who are mentioned in the interview who have not themselves approved that they are mentioned, or there are other reasons for it. This part can be cut from the published version so that it is preserved on the original recording and may be available for research. But it is inaccessible to the public even if the rest of the interview is open.

Oral History: Ownership

According to Memoar, their principle is that the person who is been interviewed who owns the recording. The interviewer is not the primary owner, but a secondary owner. Same with the photographer or an organisation. The person being interviewed can at any time request that the interview being deleted, or that parts of it be deleted at a later date. The interview object(s) can withdraw their contribution at any time. However, Memoar has made the “right to withdraw a contribution” stop with the interview object. So, for instance, any grandchildren or descendants can not request to delete their grandmother’s recording. Memoar as an organisation owns the recording after the informant passes away and with it the administrative responsibility for the interview. All these kinds of specifications are signed by the interview object in their consent form.

Another aspect to consider is whether the collection is to document the history or only for use as research material.

If the documenting is for research purposes, some more factors need to be taken into consideration. And it needs to be done more detailed privacy work. For more information on documenting for research purposes:

https://www.etikkom.no/hvem-er-vi-og-hva-gjor-vi/Hvem- is-we / The-national-research-ethics-committee-for-social-sciences-and-humanities /

Oral History: Origin

An oral history document is making a record of reconstruction or re-presentation of history. However, it will be an archival document of the producing person or organisation in the future. For that record to become an archival document, the origin, purpose and context of the record need to be preserved. According to Memoar, based on privacy policy, the ownership of an oral history document will be within the interview object. But based on archive perspective, the origin of an oral history document will be the producing organisation or person. This is not about ownership but origin. For instance, DsporA Tamil Archive is documenting a person telling his/ her life history or a person telling the history of a Tamil organisation in Norway. The origin of this oral history will be DsporA Tamil Archive.

Oral History: Preservation and use

Memoar is one of several users that currently using minner.no to preserve the audio and video contributions. However, preservations of audio and video formats are the big questions that are an ongoing discussion. According to Memoar, at the moment, no one receives such private archival materials for storage in eternity. The National Library is in the process of this work, but still has a way to go before they are ready to receive private archives that will probably be a part of their collection.
For more information: www.abmdig.no

Meanwhile, Memoar is building a temporary private archive.
For more information: www.memoar.no/infrastruktur

Besides, they deliver the audio and video documentation through their project, “Muntlig historie for alle” (“Oral history for everyone”), to minner.no. And from there it will go to the “Norsk Folkeminnesamling” (Norwegian Folk Memory Collection). This is not a permanent solution.

 So far, Memoar themself is documenting and collecting such materials. They also collect from local history teams (historielagene) and other project groups. They store the collection in their dropbox while waiting for eternity storage to take care of them. Memoar does also publish on their website.

Noolaham publishes the oral history documents under Creative Commons licence at aavanaham.org.


Noolaham Foundation is a Tamil digital community archive. It was founded in 2005 as a “Noolaham project” by two Tamil volunteers in Eelam (Sri Lanka). Soon it developed into Noolaham Foundation with the joint contribution of collaborative and volunteer-driven people. It is funded by donations. Aavanaham.org is a part of Noolaham Foundation that was started in 2017. Aavanaham means “archive” and noolaham means “library” in Tamil. It collects, categories and index, stores, preserves and makes documents, in all kinds of medium, available for the public.

Noolaham Foundation has an oral history division under aavanaham.org. They document the oral history of people living in Eelam (Sri Lanka) under the project name “வாய்மொழி வரலாற்று ஆய்வு நிலையம்” (Oral Historical Research Station). As well as collecting oral history contributions by other Tamils around the world. This is one of the digital repositories to document, collect, store, preserve and make Tamil oral history available for public access. As far it is known, Noolaham is the first repository to preserve Oral history in Eelam.


Minner.no create a digital environment to collect, preserve and disseminate various forms of interviews and written appeals. Those documents show the knowledge and experiences of different people. According to Minner.no, the tool is under development, and they work with a long-term perspective to facilitate the best possible arrangements for:

  • Private individuals can pass on their own experiences – and take part in others´ experiences
  • Cultural institutions can invite the public to join in documenting various phenomena and events in society
  • Audiences, researchers and journalists can take part in how different people understand their own lives and living conditions
Memoar – norsk organisasjon for munnleg historie (Memoar – Norwegian organisation for oral history)

Memoar is a non-profit organisation that builds a resource centre for oral history in Norway. They work together with institutions and voluntary organisations to document, collect, preserve and disseminate oral source material about contemporary time. Their purpose is “å fremja ein kultur for å ta vare på og dela munnlege forteljiongar om levd liv” (“to promote a culture of preserving and sharing oral narratives about lived life”).

Memoar is currently documenting daily life in 2020, focused on the corona.
For more information: http://www.memoar.no/korona. At the current situation, they do also interview through zoom or other platforms and record the conversation.

An open invitation from Memoar.no

When DsporA Tamil Archive contacted Memoar, they showed an interest and gave an open invitation to hold practical courses for interested Tamil individuals, organisations or other societies for collecting oral history about the past and present. At the moment Memoar has funding through the project “Oral history for everyone”, and the course thus costs nothing for the participants. But the participants need to arrange a place to hold the course.

Endnote and reference:

1 Department of Tamil in Annamalai University and Thiruvannamalai Government Arts College Postgraduate Department of Tamil Studies (திருவண்ணாமலை அரசு கலைக் கல்லூரி முதுகலை தமிழ் ஆய்வுத் துறை) together organised a one-week International seminar under the title “வரலாற்றியல் நோக்கில் தமிழர் பண்பாட்டு அடையாளங்கள்” (Tamil Cultural Identities in Historical Perspective). The 6th day of the conference was conducted on 08th August 2020 under the topic “ரோமானியப் பேரரசு கால ஆவணங்கள் கூறும் சங்ககால வணிகச் செய்திகள்” (Roman Empire period documents telling about the trades from the Sangam era). The topic was presented by K. Subashini. She is a multinational cultural researcher and president of the Tamil Heritage Foundation, Germany.

tamilchindhanaimarabu tvm. (2020). Home [YouTube channel]. Retrieved August 08, 2020, from https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=HyuQq81LYGU.

2 The ancient Tamil country (பண்டைய தமிழகம்) is the territory ruled by the three dynasties namely the Chera, Chola and Pandyas during the Sangam era until around 15th century. It covers the territories of present-day Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

3 A record in text, audio, video or other medium is a method of documenting something. And it is a phase of an arching process. An archiving process is complete when a record is compiled, stored and preserved in a repository for use by contemporary and future generations.

Thank you:

Noolaham Foundation, Eelam

Minner.no, Norway

Memoar – Norwegian organisation for oral history, Norway

Due to the lack of or fragmented archives or limited access to archives in Tamil society, it has been challenging to get access to available sources that can support oral history interviews.
In this situation, writing about diaspora Tamil history will be a dynamic process which may change its shape and be updated over time. Thus, we welcome the public to provide feedback with any verifiable sources in the case of need for correction in the factual information in this website.

Reproduction of this article is allowed when used without any alterations to the contents and the source, DsporA Tamil Archive, is mentioned.

Updated 05.12.2020

5 thoughts on “Oral history

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s