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Personal Accounts Title
Getting Started
How do historians use personal accounts?

Anthropology and other cross-cultural approaches have begun to influence the ways in which history is interpreted and various perspectives are valued. The voices of minorities have long been silent, or marginalized at best. They can often provide personal perspectives on historical events and offer insight into the past beyond official or formal sources.


What we know about the past is what certain individuals have decided should be preserved. In ancient historical periods, court praise singers preserved in oral poetic form the preferred version of succession as a hedge against usurpers. More recently, as scholars write their interpretations of history and biographies of significant players, the nature of history itself is shaped by their choices. It is important to know what facts they consider significant and which individuals they choose to study.

      From the Diary of Anne Frank


Sometimes political considerations silence certain voices. In Morocco, for example, the government has banned a book that recounts the long imprisonment of a family whose head opposed the reigning king in a coup 20 years ago. Depending on the political and socioeconomic views of the person asked, the account, published as Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail, is described as “brutally honest” or “full of lies.”


Personal accounts and oral histories allow scholars to delve more deeply into the complexities of human experience. These kinds of sources can bring forth the voices of people whose personal stories have long been ignored. Personal accounts can also offer comparative views on issues like public transfers of power between high profile individuals as effected in battles and political pacts, or provide an ordinary perception of a period in history, as experienced by the majority of people in the culture. Sometimes the quietest life is more insightful than the most visible.


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