Outside of historical study, the terms ‘memory’ and ‘history’ are often used in a synonymous manner. Despite this, history and memory are different concepts, each with their own purpose. Memory is informed by lived experiences, generational tales, and the words of historians. Memory can provide smaller details of individuals and groups, but sometimes history can provide a bigger picture of the conflicts and groups influencing events. History is the study of events as they occurred through the analysis of different objects and stories. At times, memory and history complement each other. Memory can inform historians where there are no formal records, and imagination can be used where memory fails. Both history and memory are important to study, and their use together can help counter the fallible aspects of the other.

Historian Carl Becker, a past-professor at Cornell University, argues that there are two histories: “the actual series of events that once occurred; and the ideal series that we affirm and hold in memory”[1]. Most of what we know is imperfect knowledge strung together by what material traces are left behind from an event or object of study. The actual series of events is unchanging, but the interpretation is relative and able to change in relation to our level of knowledge. On the other hand, memory is a range of first-hand experiences. Memory can be used to inform history, as history cannot remove the human aspects of events. Memory is imaginative, keeping the events of the past alive regardless of imperfections. Oral history in Indigenous communities has demonstrated this. For generations, knowledge has been  preserved and disseminated to younger generations by elders. Some oral histories can only be told at certain times to certain audiences; for example, some Plains Indigenous communities save certain stories for the winter months because of the belief that spirits sleep during that time of the year, so they will not be angered by certain stories. Songs, prayers, spiritual lessons, ways of survival, and histories are all parts of the memory preserved by oral history.

Historiography, the study of historical writing, allows historians to analyze the development of the discipline and past works. Historian E.H. Carr, an expert in historiography and International Relations, explains that it is hard to find sources that everyone agrees are definite facts. Historians must be accurate, but specific facts can only speak to the public when historians decided they were important enough for dissemination, and only then when they have access. Facts cannot speak for themselves; they must be interpreted to fit the wider context [2]. This shows that history, like memory, is imperfect, and that facts can be omitted. History is organized where memory is not — though there are times that memories are created to inform future history. Memory is vivid, and can allow for both a greater understanding of events and what a society values based on what is emphasized in retellings. 

Some historians believe that only statistics can be true and they argue that memory is unreliable because people can forget overtime or over-exaggerate.. This absolutist view is flawed for two primary reasons. First, it assumes that government documents and primary sources are always ‘true’ as written. Even government documents can be exaggerated because the people writing these records have agendas, whether explicit or implicit. Second, it carries a troublesome assumption that oral history is not ‘truth.’ Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island (North America) have used oral history for thousands of years, passing down important knowledge accurately to today. A prime example of this is the mystery of the Franklin Expedition. For generations the story of the doomed ship was passed down in both Inuit and Settler communities. Inuit Oral Historian Louie Kamookak connected the ancestral stories told by the Elders of his community to the similarities with the vanished Franklin Expedition, where 129 men were lost while exploring the Northwest Passage. This happened after dozens of attempts by non-Indigenous communities to find the lost ships, and after generations of European explorers and historians ignoring oral history as a valid source of information. Kamookak shared his theory with Canadian archaeologists and the ships were found within two years, right where he predicted. Generally, the public thinks of history as a recreation of fact and reality, but another definition of truth is ‘a fact or belief that is accepted as true’. A belief does not need to be relayed exactly as it occurred to be considered true, only accepted by the public as a truth. Past beliefs in history that change with the uncovering of new knowledge are not necessarily untruthful, just incomplete. 

Neither history nor memory is better than the other. Both involve the past, but history relies on organized recreations by historians while memory relies on lived experiences. The two can coexist symbiotically, but  tension remains in how they are used in written history. Facts become malleable with increased in knowledge and sources available to us and by truths uncovered by historians using imagination in the place of memory. Oral history allows for a combination of history and memory in both research and the classroom. Having access to various viewpoints and perspectives of people can fill in the gaps of documented history, or even contradict it. This access is important because multiple narratives can be true about a single event. Oral history can convey personality, explain motivation, and reveal the inner thoughts and perceptions of people in a way that other sources can not. It is like comparing films and books – both are great mediums, but each has aspects they are more effective at accentuating than others. 

Therefore, in the education sector, it is important to evolve with the field and treat oral history as not just a dressing for the meat of history in the way Western societies have defined it. By combining memory with history, we can create a richer and more comprehensive understanding of where we have come from. Oral history has an especially valuable place in grade 7, 8, and 10 history classrooms where Indigenous history is covered. Allowing Indigenous communities to tell their stories in their own words, rather than imposing a Western curriculum on their past, aids in the process of reconciliation and the decolonization of classrooms. As we progress in educational research it is important to diversify materials and content. As reconciliation efforts continue, stories of residential school students are also being taught. Using these first person sources is a good start, but an extension into stories that are generations old rather than lived experiences would be a fundamental next step. It would require a paradigm shift, and for many students to encounter a type of knowledge that they have not yet been exposed to. This would make everyone involved stronger learners.

Sydney Spillner

  1. Becker, Carl. “Everyman His Own Historian.” The American Historical Review 37, no. 2 (1932): 221–36. https://doi.org/10.2307/1838208.
  2. Carr, Edward Hallett. What Is History?. London: Macmillan: St. Martin’s Press, 1961. Chapter 1.