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What is Oral History and Who Does It?
Originally, oral history was simply defined as a conversational narrative that got archived. David Kyvig has said that "oral history is nothing more than the application of common sense to the pursuit of information." Thus, we're going to be sharing lots of heuristics, or "rules of thumb," in this class. Oral history, traditionally, is an account of something passed down by word of mouth from one generation to another. Contemporary oral history involves recording or transcribing eyewitness accounts of historical events.
The information passed on has occasionally shown a surprising accuracy over long periods of time. For example, the Iliad, an epic poem of Homer describing the conquest of Troy, was passed down as oral history from perhaps the 8th century BC, until being recorded in writing by Pisistratus some two hundred years later. Nonetheless, factual elements of the Iliad were at least partially validated by the discovery of ruins discovered by German businessman and archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in 1870, thought to be those of the city described in the poem.
A famous example of oral history comes from the works of several authors who have, over the span of many hundreds of years, collected folklore which was ultimately put together in a book known as the Old Testament. The New Testament was created by several different original authors whose slightly differing versions of many biblical events were combined. The Bible was therefore nearly entirely created using oral history.
As a teenager I had become interested in the memories shared by older members of my community while working for the now-shuttered Cunningham Drug Store in Grinnell, Iowa. Cunningham Drug advertising home delivery of prescriptions and, it being an earlier time, local high school students like myself were hired to drive a truck laden with controlled substances all over town. The most important part of my job, I came to discover, was not delivering the goods. Rather, what customers really wanted was my time. Most of them were house-bound or residents of local retirement homes. Many had not talked to anyone for days. Sometimes their last contact was me, on a prior delivery. When I first started working the job, I'd tried to get through my route in record time, hoping to impress the boss. But then pretty early on, Big Jim Cunningham stopped me on my way down to the delivery drivers' haunt, the basement of the store, and said something curious to me. He said, "Take your time on those deliveries. And I'm not telling you because I think you'll wreck the truck." That's all he said. And, in fact, I must have screwed up my face at his remark, because the store's delivery trucks had been totaled a couple of times before I got my hands on one. But I took it slower from then on out, and I had a lot more fun, lingering over conversations with elderly customers and picking up the occasional homemade cookie. Pretty soon I realized that Jim Cunningham was a genius. Customers flocked to Cunningham Drug, in part, because these nice young boys, we were all boys in those days, delivered their prescriptions.
Our favorite customer, most of us agreed on this, was ninety-year-old Sara Ann Brown. Sara Ann lived quietly, well not so quietly for a ninety-year-old, at the Mayflower Retirement Home in Grinnell. She was a member of the Grinnell High School class of 1923 (I was in the class of 1987), and her memory was striking. What really blew me away was that Sara Ann had received Iowa State University's first home economics doctorate in 1942. I remember thinking how amazing it was that she was smart and old. And not just smart, because I'd been smacked around by lots of smart old women, but she had a Ph.D. She was "Dr." Brown. Wow! I mentioned Sara Ann's name at the dinner table one night, and some of the stories Sara Ann had shared with me as I stood in her doorway with the half-forgotten white prescription sack in my hand. I told them about how she smoked cigars openly in Copenhagen, Denmark, at a time when that wasn't considered "lady-like" in the U.S. I recounted how Sara Ann took the Dinky railroad to school at Iowa State, baked cherry pies for the campus' spring Veisha celebration, and principaled in the most "god forsaken" parts of Iowa.
Questions to consider: What are the characteristics of a good oral historian? Is oral history a performance art? What's the difference between oral history and journalism? Is oral history just for us? Who stands to benefit? Why is it valuable?
Oral histories serve several purposes. In the early days they were about filling gaps in the historical record. Oral historians were creating knowledge that would otherwise not exist. But oral history is so much more than this. Plugging a gap in culture with ideas that are not part of that culture in a certain sense falsifies its shape, because culture really has no gaps. Historians are every day engaged in falsifying culture! It's called selection bias. At any given time the historical repertoire of culture is narrowly limited, with a limited set of alternative interpretations. Historians "fix" this problem all the time.
I was warned against using oral histories to fix my problems as a budding, young historian.
The general objective of any archive recording program should be to use oral history methods as a means both documenting and of preserving the past. The process product of such work ought to open up new fields of research. It should also seek to meet the broader educational interests of present and future generation by showing them the conditions of life and the variety of experiences of their parents and grand-parents and reflecting and illustrating characteristics or change which make a particular society or culture distinctive.
In realizing these ends, the absence of documentary and printed records will usually indicate the primary subject on which oral history recording would most usefully be focused. Filling wide or absolute gaps in the historic record are fundamental objectives for a creative recording program and, when they also represent subjects that are only alive in the memories of the very elderly, they are gaps which need to be filled first. However, recording can also be based - even in generally well documented fields - on particular features which are not covered by the existing records. It may be the case that the paper records which have been preserved have, for example, an administrative or hierarchical focus, and that much more information can be added to the historical mosaic of some subjects by oral history recording.
Since oral history has an important role in reflecting the past as well as uncovering it, recordings may also be carried out to preserve a sense of place, time, personality or event. Such recordings may produce little original information but they can create an original sound document, giving color and atmosphere and a feeling for history that, in an important way, transcends the collection of data to give a unique dimension to oral history records.
Oral history is a very interdisciplinary craft. It is employed by historians, archivists, librarians, folklorists, anthropologists, educators, journalists, linguists, and genealogists. The time has passed when historians express doubts that oral history is serious history. Oral history is a respected practice of history; it’s just expensive and requires lots of intellectual responsibility. We will quickly find that we cannot fully understand or exploit the materials we are dealing with if we remain within the narrow confines of methods of our own fields of specialization.
We are going to form a loosely organized professional company here in this classroom to work on the Clinton Presidential Center & Downtown Little Rock Community Memory Project. We hope to communicate to you the skills you will need to create your own rival company when you complete the class. Amanda Allen Associates (AAA). You might be amazed at how oral history can pay. Clients might even partially support you in graduate school. Transcripts can become treasured keepsakes in the hands of clients.
The History of Oral History
All history begins with oral accounts dredged up from memories. The first historians in the world were oral historians: Thucydides and Herodotus. History is story plus interpretation, and oral history is no different. Oral history is handmaiden to both social history and archival practice.
The Regional Oral History Office at UC, Berkeley began in the 1860s with the work of publisher Hubert Howe Bancroft, who was interested in the nineteenth-century settlement of California. It was professionalized under Willa Baum beginning in 1958. The Federal Writer’s Project of the WPA began collecting oral narratives in the 1930s. Folklorist B.A. Botkin collected oral histories as part of his Former Slave Narratives project.
The Columbia Oral History Research Office (OHRO) began in 1948 under newspaperman and political historian Allan Nevins. He wanted to engage in the “popularization of history.” Allan Nevins wrote about fifty books, including an eight volume history of the Civil War. Established in 1948, it was the first program of its kind in the nation. It now consists of almost 8,000 taped memoirs and nearly 1,000,000 pages of transcript, and is the oldest and largest organized oral history program in the world. Earliest transcript in archives of the Columbia Oral History Research Office contains a first-hand account of the 1863 draft riots in New York City.
The first presidential library oral history project started at the Truman Library in Independence, MO, in 1960. Several others have followed at the Herbert Hoover Library, the LBJ Library, the Eisenhower Library, and the Clinton Library. They are all interested in politically interesting figures associated with the presidency.
The first meeting of oral historians took place at Lake Arrowhead, California, in 1966. The discussions that began there led to the creation of “Goals & Guidelines” – a code of professional ethics – in 1967-1968. The Oral History Association formed in 1967, and the Oral History Review began its publication in 1973. Because of its origins, oral history reflects its commitment to individualism and social change in America in the 1960s. It’s often been about creating narratives of empowerment. The largest documentation efforts focused on civil rights, women, labor, and local and community history (one effect of the Bicentennial).
As big as oral history has become, it can still seem like a club. Your academic pedigree extends back to both the Columbia and Berkeley ROHO programs. My boss at the Charles Babbage Institute was Arthur Norberg, who was trained at Berkeley. My graduate advisor at Iowa State was trained by Saul Benison who in turn was trained by Allan Nevins. Allan Nevins is now your intellectual great-grandfather.
Oral History Projects & Collections
Who is it For? Interviewing Elites versus Ordinary People
Oral history can give voice to the voiceless, and for this reason is sometimes grouped with the New Left social histories that began to be produced in the late 1960s. Social history is history “from the bottom up.” The history of elites has meant – until very recently – a history of men wearing neckties is all that is important. New Left history proposes that history can become a tool for social reconstruction. The marginalized of history matter. Indeed, small fish living in great times may have more to say than their fearless leaders who had less time to think than to act.
Non-elite history is a way of understanding patterns of deference and class that have contributed to maintaining the status quo. I found it troubling three semesters ago when I discovered that many of the participants in the Downtown Little Rock project knew each other since they were young people. I. C. Smith, Special Agent in charge for the FBI in Arkansas from 1995 to 1998 and author of an insightful book, Inside, says that "not more than 1000 people count in Arkansas and in that number only 100 or so really count." I believe him.
Some people have argued that oral history gets at people who are more willing to talk and make better judgments about the record because they are not already jaded. Oral history may actually be most suitable for those who survive by an oral culture in the first place: the homeless, the illiterate, the hardworking who have not time to leave behind records. Is there any such thing as a common person these days? Take a look at the sophistication that goes into garbage recycling these days. This is not a job for stupid people.
Probably the best rule of thumb is to interview the oldest people first. Nursing homes are where biography ends. “Had we but world enough and time, this coyness lady, would be no crime.” Also, interview the most significant people some time down the road after you have collected a load of data from other sources. In other words, move from the periphery to the core. Also, quality is better than quantity. Some people would disagree with me and say that the best thing to do is interview people early in life and then again and again over time. That’s all well and good. A story at each telling can be subtly changed. But how many people have those kinds of resources at their disposal?
Impact of Oral History on the Individual and Community
Oral history can be therapeutic by making people participants in history, and encouraging community and talk across generational lines. Particularly for the elderly, reminiscence can be therapeutic. You may even be giving people a history that they have never had, or seen fit to have. Lots of people live only in the present and have no past and no future. You are connecting individuals to other people in the past, present, and future. You can’t really begin to live in the future unless you know where you came from. You are also reminding yourself and the interviewee that every individual is more than one person.
For the individual the oral history process can serve as a sort of trauma therapy. You might expose a crisis brewing in the life of the interviewee. Be very careful with this, as this is not your intent in taking the deposition. You are human and it should be impossible not to get emotionally involved in your subjects, but do not become too emotionally involved. Your safety is of preeminent importance to me as an instructor. Don’t go someplace you don’t feel safe under any circumstances. Most importantly, oral history can make you more of a human being. Nothing human need really be alien to you anymore if you don’t want it to, and that’s the joy of it. Never forget that history is about people, not objects. The interview is a social occasion. We are being given a gift and must reciprocate. For the time of the interview we are involved in someone else’s life. Oral history is a collective enterprise. It is about forming a community of discourse. Oral history becomes effecter and evidence of community connections. Wisdom is found not in the individual, but in the network. You are “training the network” in completing oral histories. Oral histories depend on source experiences that are created by large groups of people.
What is Ethnography and Folklore?
Ethnography Projects and Collections
Field-oriented disciplines like ethnography rely on participant observation and may not even take notes in the presence of those they are studying, waiting to write up their notes later from memory. Ethnographers and anthropologists tend to see folk tales and folklore as no less important from the factual recounting of events.
Ethnography (def.) - (from the Greek ethnos = nation and graphein = writing) refers to the qualitative description of human social phenomena, based on fieldwork. Ethnography is a holistic research method founded in the idea that a system's properties cannot necessarily be accurately understood independently of each other. The genre has both formal and historical connections to travel writing and colonial office reports. Probably the most famous ethnography is Coming of Age in Samoa by Margaret Mead. Her book upset many people when it first appeared in 1928. American readers were shocked by her observation that young Samoan women deferred marriage for many years while enjoying casual sex, but eventually married, settled down, and successfully reared their own children.
A person within a literate culture thus has presuppositions that may falsely affect her judgment of the validity of oral history within preliterate cultures. In these cultures children are usually selected and specially trained for the role of historian, and develop extraordinary memory skills known as eidetic or photographic memory. AI expert Marvin Minsky has studied this problem in depth, and argues that no such thing has ever been documented.
Before the development of written language in a given society, oral history is the primary means of conveying information from one generation to the next. The most common form of this transmission is through storytelling and the recitation of epic poetry, with the stories and poems collectively known as the oral tradition of a people. The combination of this oral tradition with morals and rituals passed down by word of mouth is known as the folklore of a society. Although not as prevalent now as in the past, oral history is still very much alive among many North American native groups.
Some anthropologists started collecting recordings (at first especially of American Indian folklore) on phonograph cylinders in the late 19th century. In the 1930s the United States Library of Congress started an oral history program to record traditional folk music, and accounts by surviving witnesses of the American Civil War, Slavery, and other major historical events, onto acetate discs. With the development of audio tape recordings the task of recording memories became easier.
Today, cultural anthropologists like Adam Frank study and interpret cultural diversity through ethnography based on field work. It provides an account of a particular culture, society, or community. The fieldwork usually involves spending a year or more in another society, living with the local people and learning about their ways of life.
Is it possible to be an objective or neutral observer? Ethnographers are usually participant observers. They take part in events they study because it helps with understanding local behavior and thought. The longer one stays, the more they will learn and understand. Staying over one year allows for repetition in events and processes that may have been missed because of unfamiliarity at the beginnings and cultural shock.
Urban sociology is a form of ethnographic field work focused on the study of urban areas where industrial, commercial and residential zones converge. Jane Simonsen’s class on the City as Text might be considered an example of urban sociology. She was trying to get students to understand how to “read a neighborhood” and classify residential streetscapes. I live in a Texas Twenty-Minute home, for example.
Ethnography has been used to study business settings. Groups of workers, managers and so on are different social categories participating in common social systems. Each group shows different characteristic attitudes, behavior patterns and values. Netography or Virtual Ethnography is a new form of ethnography, which involves conducting ethnographic studies on the Internet. Ethnography is also one of the fields where structural analysis seems dominant. The text becomes symptomatic in the search for the problematic behind the text, the combination of things said and unsaid, which reveal the place of text in the history of theory and science. Structuralism has its modern father in Louis Althusser and his student Michel Foucault. They looked for the fundamental order of things, the lowest common denominators, the history of consciousness, that defined time and space in constructing an ethnomethodology. More recently such objectivism inherent in the work of Althusser has been turned over to more difficult questions of subjectivity. Conversation and narrative are the mediating stages between ideology and fieldwork. You are creating an “ensemble of texts” in the Clinton Library project that are more than the sum of their parts. They inform one another to recompose a culture.
The Ethnographic Interview
The prime objective is always the understanding of the past and its lasting effects upon us as we live our lives. The goal of an ethnography is also to move beyond individual tales to examine the culture itself.
Folklore Projects and Collections
Oral historians concentrate on recording personal experiences of the interviewee. Folklore is at the opposite end of the interviewing continuum from oral history. Folklorists collect the traditional stories, songs, and other expressions of the community, whether fact or fiction. Folklorists do not interview; they collect. They can collect jokes, tales, legends, songs, music, dances, plays, games, riddles, peculiar vocabulary, beliefs and customs, cookery, or examples of vernacular architecture. In folklore and ethnography, the oral historian is the person being interviewed (by this we mean the person who carries around the collective history of the community in their head).
Ethics & Sponsored Projects
There is a special code of ethics in this business because you can create more damage in the name of science than you are really producing for the historical craft. You need to be extra careful because what may slip out in an informal setting is part of a person’s secret life. Most people have a secret life that they don’t reveal, especially to those they are close to. But who are you? The interviewee may feel more comfortable sharing a piece of their secret life with you than with their own family members. There’s a line of propriety here that you are going to have to find. There’s a great story by John Wyndham about historians from the future who go back in time and study the past. They are not supposed to make any changes in the past because once they interfere they may cause irreparable damage by changing the course of history. You as an oral historian engaging in interviewing will always be transforming the person who is being interviewed. Assume that every time you conduct an interview you will be changing the timeline.
Oral histories can serve as evidence of crimes. It is possible to libel or defame someone in the process of taking an oral history. Historians do not enjoy client privilege. You cannot defame the dead.
Some of the most well-known oral historians have suffered ethical lapses. Studs Terkel is a Chicago radio host and WPA-era interviewer who authored the bestselling Hard Times (1970), Working (1974), and The Good War (1984). He is notorious for rearranging narrative prose to fit his purposes, and ennoble his subjects.
Alex Haley wrote Roots (1976), which was turned into the most popular television miniseries in American history. Some have criticized him for producing little better than historical fiction.
Federal copyright law grants copyright automatically to anyone whose words and ideas are recorded in any tangible form, for a period lasting until seventy years after that person’s death. Interviewees retain the copyright on anything that they said in the interview, just as you retain copyright on your questions asked.
Release forms can become rather full of legal-sounding language, but most oral historians manage to find a form with which they are comfortable. Release forms make it clear to the interviewee, without question, how the interviews will be used, minimizing the chances for misunderstanding. In addition to offering some protection, release forms also remind the oral historian that the interviewee grants us the privilege of using something that does not belong to us.
Your transcripts are unusable for use in productions or research by others unless you have a signed release form. Both you and the interviewee should sign it before the interview takes place. If you must rip up the release form later, so be it. Regardless, the release form “professionalizes” the experience for the interviewee. It is a contract to try hard to recollect things honestly.
Proposals and Grants
Most IRB regulations are inappropriate to the purposes of oral history. IRB review may even act as an infringement on academic freedom. Most oral history projects are excluded from IRB review. The key to IRB approval is “informed consent.” Can an oral history taking cause the subject to be harmed. It can even involve potential defamation of character. Proper oral history taking is technically exempt from IRB review. Informed consent is an ongoing process and negotiation. It is not a piece of paper.
Grant budgets can cover the costs of research, travel, and interview processing. Sources of funds might include Arkansas Heritage Council & SURF. Private grant funds might also be available. The application process can be a major hurdle. That’s why the Sponsored Projects Office is here to help. You will need to supply a catchy title for the project, a project description and justification, explain how it meets the grant funding agency’s guidelines. You may need to engage professional collaborators, or advisors and describe their relevant expertises and how they will help. You will also need to demonstrate a good plan, the expected product of the project, the audience for the result, perhaps a GANTT chart. A budget summary will be required, because you are asking for money. You may need to give a plan for publicity and or distribution to that audience. You may even need an evaluation plan if the project is expected to be a long one.
The official paperwork is the last section you work on but the first section they see. If at all possible type it up. Ask questions about how it should be filled in. Signatures take time to acquire. Make early deadlines for yourself. Give mentors time to fill out their part of the forms. The sections marked optional on forms are not optional. Make your c.v. neat and organized. Polish the work that you have done. Decide what they are lookin gofr (do they want to see work experience? Research projects? Papers? Or Presentations? You must have the official transcript documents as signed by the Registrar. That takes time and money ($3-5 each). The abstracts should be short and to the point. Don’t state conclusions. Make them want to read the written proposal.
In the written component: Know your audience. What kinds of projects are they look for? Do they know the terminology of your project? Footnotes and bibliography do not count against your wordcount or pagecount. If you need to supply background information and it doesn’t fit into the proposal use a footnote. Be concise. Use the appropriate serif font (Arial or Times New Roman) in 12 pt. Make it local. How will your project affect their community? Be sure to include a dissemination of results. Tell them anywhere and everywhere you’d like to present. Put enough into the GANTT chart that you look busy and important. Let them see exactly what they are paying for with Microsoft Visio or Excel. Find or create donors. It shows that other people believe that you are a worthwhile investment. Add up your budget three times to make sure you’ve totaled correctly.
You may want to write the outlines of recommendation letters for the people who you are asking to write for you. The letter should be about the project, why it’s important, and why you are the only one capable of doing it. Have each letter emphasize a different aspect (i.e., why it’s important to the community, why you are qualified, why it’s important to your field) and pair those aspects up with your recommender’s expertise.
The Scholarly Task of Oral History
Oral historians are not just glorified reporters, though I think the most remarkable oral historians can learn much from journalists and vice versa. Journalists work under extraordinary pressures, including short deadlines. They are not likely to deposit their notes in archives for further research.
It is always better if the interviewer has some particular interest, experience, or expertise in the subject matter. Take on interviewees and subjects that you feel prepared to take on and learn something about. Play to your personal strengths. Perhaps you will want to search for your own past in conducting oral histories. I think that’s what we all are doing ultimately.
Selecting an interviewee: sometimes the best subject is the most articulate at expressing themselves, has a good memory, and is not so atypical as a consequence as to be different from others in the same position that you might interview. Good social history can be intellectual history too. Most oral histories that get noticed have some sort of conceit. They gravitate towards the “movers” and the “shakers.” I like snowball interviewing, where you ask a good interviewee who they recommend as future interviewees. The danger is that you will lose your sense of purpose and remove yourself from a good stratified sampling of interviewees.
Where written sources are available, they should be used as background as well as corroboration. Oral data does not exonerate the historian from searching for and using written documents exhaustively. A cardinal rule is to come to the interview thoroughly informed and then to let the subject do all the talking.
Some of the best places to gather research on your interviewees may be through general Internet searches, the New York Times full-text database, the Google News Archive, and the Newspaper Index full-text database available from the Torreyson Library website.
Compiling Interview Topics & Questions
Oral history is about asking good questions. Oral history involves structured interviewing techniques. Have the questions ready on two sheets (the bottom of the second sheet is there for your field notes, sorted in chronological and then subject order as much as possible. People think of their lives primarily in chronological order, or sometimes reverse chronological order. Ask the most general questions first, then work your way to the most specialized. Broach the most controversial subjects last, unless controversy is the subject of the interview. This is called “funnel interviewing.” Money, not sex, is the most sensitive topic in the oral history interview. Ask about victories before talking about losses.
Still, question-asking is individualized and intuitive. Don’t ever let me take that away from you. Ask open-ended questions that require more than a sentence or two in reply. Rationalize your questions as you ask them. Use “how” or “why” rather than “what” questions. Avoid loaded questions where you suggest the answer in advance. Ask yourself how likely are your questions going to be in producing informative answers? The best interview question is: “Can you give me an example?” Second best: “Can you walk me through the events of that day?” Third best: “How did you feel then and how do you feel now?” Aspire to perform a meaty interview.
The very questions that you ask are going to reveal your biases. One way around the problem is to gather questions from other people. Family interview questionnaires listing commonly asked questions may be valuable to your project. Paul Thompson's The Voice of the Past ends with an appendix listing model questions he asked in interviews:
Full name. Place and date of birth. Father’s name, place and date of birth, occupation. Mother’s name, place and date of birth, occupation. Grandparents: names, places and dates of birth. Any memories of them? When did family members come to America? What was their physical appearance? What stories have you heard about them? Were you told any stories about other forebears? If so, what were they?
Childhood: Where did you grow up? Describe the house you lived in. Describe the sort of food you ate. Describe the types of clothes you wore. Describe the games you played as a child (not only sport but things like skipping, marbles, etc). What chores did you have to complete?
Family activities: What sort of things did your family celebrate? (Christmas, birthdays, etc). Describe a typical family Christmas/birthday and/or another appropriate family gathering. Describe a common ceremony. What were your family’s attitudes towards alcohol? Smoking? What was the discipline like at home? What sorts of things were your parents strict about? How? Why?
Education: Where did you go to school? How did you get there? How many classes were there? How many children in the classroom? Did you have any favorite teachers? Why did you like her/him? Were there any teachers you disliked? Why? What was the discipline like at school? (strap, other punishments?) How did you feel about being punished? Why? Describe the games you played at school how old were you when you left school? Why did you leave? What did you do next? Ask the same questions about high school and university, if appropriate.
Work: What was your first paid job? Where did you work? Describe what you did in your job. Hours of work? Wages? Did you give any to your parents? Did you need special clothes? Equipment? How did you feel about your job? Were you involved in a union? Which? How? What were your relations like with your workmates? With your boss? Were there any problems getting time off? If so, describe them. Why did you leave? If person interviewed had more than one job, repeat for each.
Leisure: What did you do in your spare time? (clubs/youth organizations/sports/games/dances/hobbies/cinema/theater/pub?) Describe what was involved. Did you go out in the evenings? What was a good night out when you were young? Did you stick to a group of friends? Did your parents expect to meet your friends? Did your parents disapprove of any of your activities? If so, why?
Marriage/Partners: How did you meet your partner? How did you feel about him/her? Why? Why did you decide to get married/live together? Was there any pressure from your families? If so, what? Where did you get married? Was it a religious or civil ceremony? Why? Describe what you wore. Was there a reception held and what was it like? Honeymoon? Where? How long? How did you manage the housekeeping after marriage/living together? Who paid the bills? Who decided how the money should be spent? What did you do when you disagreed? How would you describe your relationship? Did you talk to each other and share important things? Did you both have the same ideas about bringing up children? Was there anyone you talked to if you were worried about the children? Did you ask your mother for advice? Reasons?
Religion: Could you tell me how you spent Saturdays in those days? How about Sundays? Did you have different clothes? Did you play games? Did your parents think it wrong to work or play on Sunday? Did your parents attend a place of worship? Denomination? How often? Both mother and father? Did either hold any position in the church? Did you attend? Did you go to Sunday School? Outings? Choir? Evening classes? Other activities organized by the church? Were you taught to say prayers at night? Did you ever have family prayers? How much would you say religion meant to you as a child?
Other things you might want to ask about: Interviewee’s experiences during a war. Interviewee’s experiences during a time of other national stress. Moving away from home how did you feel about that? Did you keep in touch with your family? How? Why?
Ask “why not” questions as well as “why” questions. Look for omissions from the dialogue and ask about them. Never say “I know exactly what you mean” even when you do. Always ask these two questions at the end of the interview: “Are there any questions I’ve failed to ask you which you would like to raise?” and “Are there any topics you would like to return to and say more about?”
Knowledge Database: FranaWiki/Creating/Editing Wikis/Standards that Apply
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MediaWiki also implements the old "quote style" of text formatting, which is used on several wikis. Briefly:
''Two single quotes are italics'', '''three single quotes are bold''', '''''five single quotes are bold and italic.'''''
Two single quotes are italics, three single quotes are bold, five single quotes are bold and italic.
The "quote style" formatting is often confusing, especially when multiple bold and italic sections are mixed on a line.
Headings are delimited by 1-6 equal signs (=). They basically correspond to HTML's <h1> through <h6> tags.
= Headline size 1 = == Headline size 2 == === Headline size 3 === ==== Headline size 4 ==== ===== Headline size 5 ===== ====== Headline size 6 ======
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...which looks like:
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# Text for a numbered list item. ## Text for second-level list. ### Text for third level, etc. ## Another Text for the second level.
...which looks like:
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Life History Forms & Memory Jogging Conferences
Life histories give the interviewee enough time to relate what both the interviewer seeks and the interviewee wants to tell. The oral historian conducting even a subject-oriented project should seriously consider expanding the scope of its questions to record as much as possible about each interviewee’s life. Interviewers should extend the inquiry beyond their immediate needs to make each interview as complete as possible for the benefit of others.
Researchers can prepare life history forms that they send out to the interviewee in advance of the interview. This allows you to get acquainted with the outline of the interviewee’s lives and then fill in the details with the oral history. At the very least the interviewee should be able to send you a copy of their employment resume, which might help guide the conversation. This can be a good thing and a bad thing, as it lays out a blueprint for the conversation, but also drives the interviewee to the destination before the interview even takes place.
The life history form can contain very little or a great deal, depending on the project's purposes. Personal data is very useful and particularly recommended if the interview is a family history project or if interviews are to be archived for future use. The form needs to contain information that helps scholars understand, use, and interpret the interview. Aside from interviewee’s name, address, telephone number, birthdate, and birthplace, the form might ask for the names, birth dates, and dates of death for parents, siblings, spouses, and children. It could ask for places lived in as well as for education and work histories. It could ask for listings of special skills and for memberships in organizations.
Another possibility is the memory jogging conference, sometimes called the oral history “coffee house,” which involves invited members of the community to an event that is recorded for posterity. Participants can help each other remember things. The downside is the difficult in preparing a faithful transcript of the conversation.
Do as much as you can to research each individual subject, but don’t sweat it if you know more about some participants or subjects than others. Oral history often gets at information you cannot be prepared to receive. Oral history, after all, gets at neglected areas of knowledge.
Professional Demeanor/Public Relations/Correspondence
It is my job to grease the walls to the corridors of power. The initial correspondence that gets sent will include my name, the name of the Honors College at UCA, as well as your own. Amanda, Eric, and I will also serve as your personal advisory committee on your projects. Each of you will meet with each of us at some point to discuss your particular research agenda and interview plan. I will be available to alert potential gatekeepers to you work and provide suitable introductions where necessary. My job is the set the agenda, raise necessary funds, maintain paperwork, and supervise personnel. We must all work to bridge the gaps between the ivory towers of the academy and the real world.
Your first task after you have identified the interviewee is to contact him by mail. This is still perceived as the most courteous way of contacting someone, and the formality of the request will catch their attention and alert them to its importance. In less than two pages explain in your solicitation letter: (1) who you are, (2) who you represent, (3) what you are interested in doing, (4) why they are important – flattery works!, (5) where and when you might be available, (6) how the interview process works and what the product of the labor will be, (7) emphasize that they will have opportunity to review the manuscript, (8) close with language explaining that you will be calling or emailing them very soon. If you don’t know very much about the interviewee, ask for a c.v. or resume in the solicitation letter or ask about any sources that you might consult in advance of the interview.
Be ready for them to respond that they have nothing of importance to contribute. Have a rebuttal ready. Be persistent about scheduling a particular time frame for the interview. Accept the ground rules that the interviewee ultimately sets, but be prepared for them to break their own rules. You will need to be able to monitor your own stress level in advance of the interview. Every interview I’ve done I’ve gone into scared. Take three deep breaths. Plant this thought in your mind: This guy is not special. He’s like me.
Prepare a route map in advance so that you will arrive early for the interview appointments. Be aware of special complications like equipment, power cords and outlets, and parking fees. Practice changing tapes and batteries. Dress appropriately, that is, one level of clothing above the level you expect your interviewee to wear.
Once at the interview site, get the equipment set and working as quickly as possible. Many an interview has been ruined by the subject spilling their guts before you can get the recording device turned on. Put the recording device in as unobtrusive a place as possible, giving you easy access to the light that tells you it is still working. Anybody can be technophobic. Check your equipment unobtrusively but regularly. Recording devices almost always have an effect on the interview product. Be aware of tape “leaders.”
Take along two copies of the release form. You and the interviewee should sign both forms. Give one copy to the interviewee. Conduct the interview in a location away from traffic by other people and extraneous noise. Move the interviewee away from behind the desk if possible. Look for unintended clutter in the shot, like an obtrusive note sticking out of a lapel pocket of the interviewee. Control the lighting level. Turn on lights that may be in the shot. Give the interviewee appropriate “head room” and “look space.” Two cameras, one focused on the interviewer and the other on the interviewee, are better than one. Consider having a small portion of the interview take place during a tour of facilities or during a demonstration, or capture some stock footage of the location without the interviewer for cutaway shots in the finished film. People live in an envelope of location and sound. Try and capture some of that.
Try and interview only one person at a time, regardless who may show up to the interview. Group interviews make you the moderator of a discussion, which adds a level of complexity. Also, it will be more difficult to transcribe the resulting interview later. Team interviewing is acceptable, as long as the interviewers know their particular roles. In fact, team interviewing is recommended where video equipment is involved.
Interviewing Style/Silence/Location/Active Listening
The best advice I can share is that oral history involves experiential learning, that is, learning by doing. That one of the reasons why this kind of seminar-style class works so well in the Honors College. Oral history is a cooperative learning strategy.
Oral history is a natural habitation for extroverts and conversationalists. Good interviewers are humble, persistent, and know when to be passive or active. Developing personal rapport with your subjects is very important. If at all possible know something semi-trivial about the interviewee that you might share in common. If the interviewee is from Texarkana and you grew up in Texarkana exploit that advantage in breaking the ice. Steer clear of false intimacy, but act sympathetically, be friendly, and above all COURAGEOUS. Don’t be a COWARD, but THINK. The best conversations come out of such contrariety. Don’t fall into acquiescence and don’t engage in too much argument.
You may be surprised at how willing people will be to talk to you because you are a young person. They recognize that you are teachable and open to ideas in ways that your crusty old professors are not. The people whom you are interviewing are going to become your teachers and your teachers are going to know a hell of a lot about their own lives depending on the kinds of questions you pursue. If they aren’t saying much, you are asking the wrong sorts of questions.
I am almost always perceived as more of a threat to interview subjects than you will be. You can ask the embarrassing questions because you are young and naïve! Take advantage of that advantage while being always polite and deferential. You are an emissary of the Honors College and UCA whenever you take an oral history.
At the interview you may be in charge of managing interviewee butterflies. Put the interviewee at ease. Make sure they are comfortable and have water if they want it. Switch off the recording device if they want to say something to you in confidence (“off the record comments”) and then immediately switch it back on.
Ask one open-ended question at a time. Don’t step all over the comments given by the interviewee. You are gregarious but not rude. Give them a chance to fully consider your question before asking a follow up question. Don’t interrupt. This is something that I’ve had to learn as a teacher. Give your students some time to come up with the answers. Remember that professional people and politicians are schooled not to volunteer information.
Be a good listener. Follow up on comments that are made during the interview with sub-questions where necessary or warranted. Show that you know something about the subject matter without trivializing the interview (becoming a “knowit”). Respond by shaking your head, smiling, or responding with one-word affirmatives. Take an occasional note to show interest. Beware the “well-rehearsed story.” Lots of people have them and will expect to have them recorded for posterity. They will think you want them, and maybe you do. It is better to hear out the interviewee than to interrupt these personal narratives as it will often confuse them. Still, a press release is not an oral history.
The length of the oral history is often dictated by the amount of time you have available to transcribe the tapes. For each hour of interview it may take 2-10 hours to prepare a transcript. Most oral histories do not last more than two hours at one sitting. Beware the lonely interviewee. You are not a psychiatrist. Don’t question the veracity of your subject at the time of the interview. Add a note to your field notes and check on peculiar claims later.
At the end of the interview be sure to thank the interviewee audibly on tape so that this can become part of the final transcript. Let the interviewer know how long the transcription process should take, and what will happen next. Don’t overcommit to anything else. Engage in a little casual banter if it seems appropriate, but leave quickly if they appear busy. Be sure to explain what will happen next.
Allen and Mary Ivey talk about five stages of the interview in counseling psychology. They are applicable here in oral history. Initiating: (1) rapport/structuring; (2) gathering data, or drawing out stories, concerns, problems, and issues; (3) mutual goal setting, as in, what does the interviewee think is most important; (4) working: exploring alternatives and confronting incongruities in the story, working out resolutions; and (5) terminating and generalizing to daily life (leaving behind a new story that you have both created together). Listening is the foundation of both counseling and interviewing. You can use this model to build up your natural style of interviewing. Practice leads to mastery and competence.
People exist in lots of different contexts, and you should make yourself aware of them. The local contexts of the interviewee might be family, neighborhood, or community (which provide safety); institutional contexts include education, religion, government, and work (policies and law); global contexts also impinge on the individual, things like politics, culture, global events, the environment, and the media; finally, the are chronometrical or lifespan contexts like purpose, maintaining a positive attitude, and perpetual goals like life after death. Individuals use all of these contexts in creating and maintaining their coping strategies.
Interviewer’s Field Notes
Very soon after the interview, the interviewer should sit down and make notes in an organized fashion, before time dulls the details. The notes are something like the anthropologist’s field notes. The interviewer’s notes tell who, what, when, and where. They add anything that will help the transcriber or future scholars to understand the interview. If the project is in a school setting, teachers or students need to create a form to fit their particular projects’ needs and goals, as well as the students’ abilities.
Immediately following the interview ask for the spellings of proper nouns and names and write them down yourself. This will help you when it is time to prepare the transcript. Also, write down a little bit about the surroundings you encounter as well as thoughts on your own performance. Observe the interviewee in the context of their natural surroundings. What is it like to be this person on a day-to-day basis?
Add any comments you may want to make about the interviewee that took place when the recording device was shut off. These can go into your biographical abstract or in the footnotes. Note the mood of the interviewee before, during, and after the narrative was taken. Think about the concept of intersubjectivity. How did the sharing of the narrative affect the objectivity of the account?
Answer the following questions in your postmortem:
- How did I choose the person to be interviewed? Were the people I interviewed the right ones for my research?
- How did I prepare for the interview? Did I prepare enough?
- What did I use for equipment? Did it work satisfactorily? What changes should I make?
- What kinds of questions did I ask? What kinds of questions worked well? Not so well?
- Where did I conduct the interview? What in the environment affected my interview? How?
- Did my subject want to talk? How did I encourage my subject to talk? What "masks" did my subject wear? Did my subject drop the masks?
- When did I tell my subject the purpose of the interview and how it would be used? Did my plans to use the interview seem to matter to the subject?
- How accurate were my subject's memories?
- How accurate was my subject's reporting of her memories? How do I know? Does it matter?
- Who controlled the interview? How?
- How did I feel while interviewing?
- How did my subject feel while being interviewed?
- Would it be useful and possible to return for another interview?
- How do these results affect my original goals? Do I need to adjust my research design?
- When I transcribe, will I write exactly what was said or will I begin light editing right from the start? How will I decide what to write and what not to write?
- How can I ensure that the transcription is accurate? How can I ensure that the transcription reports what the subject wanted to say?
- Who owns the interview and has the right to decide how the completed interview and transcription will be used?
- Next time, what would I do the same? What would I do differently?
The live performer – both the interviewer and interviewee – when it comes time for the solo, creates as well as performs and so there’s an improvisational air to it. And it’s not the air of the unexpected so much as the air of allowance for something to happen that you don’t plan for. Interviewers should always be prepared to abandon the script. You might notice a “phrase that explodes” and want to immediately follow the explosion with a new avenue of questioning. If this occurs, it is very important to jot down keywords and phrases so that you can create new interview questions on the fly. Keep these interview notes with your field notes. Still, remember that interviews have beginnings, middles, and ends. Don’t abandon the end just because the middle went down an unexpected path.
Gathering Artifacts/Manuscript Material from Interviewee
As a rule of thumb decline all attempts on the part of interviewees to give you material in their personal possession that they might later want back. Be sure that the interviewee has access to any copies of texts or artifacts they may give you.
Photography & Videography
Media projects result in the development of humanities audiovisual resources, including film and video productions, exhibits, audio productions, slide-tape programs, and websites. Projects will often involve collaboration between humanities scholars and experienced media specialists to produce high-quality resources based on the oral history text and other research. The medium definitely affects the message that is delivered. Memories are recounted with more than words. Transcripts can indicate laughter, sobs, finger pointing, or fist shaking. But some expressions are too complex or subtle to reduce to words.
Care of Ethnography Lab & Equipment
Develop a familiarity with the equipment that you will be using. Nothing is more stressful than having some easily remediable problem happen at the interview site. Electrical power is more reliable than batteries, but also makes your equipment less portable. Always carry along power cords and more tape than you think you may need. If you use a microphone, place it nearer to the participant than to yourself. You have written notes on your own questions, but not on the responses you will receive. Video Editing Software
Transcription Processing and Archiving
Our problem becomes more complicated when we try to write down what has been said. People don't always speak in complete sentences. They repeat themselves and leave things out. They talk in circles and tell fragments of the same story out of chronological sequence. They mumble incoherently and use wrong names. When they speak, they don't use punctuation. How is the transcriber to put spoken words onto paper with a semblance of written coherence without changing the narrator's meaning? Finally, the transcript does not carry inflections of voice and body language. Therefore the reader of the transcript does not have all of the information that the interviewer had originally. In addition, readers and listeners will add their own interpretations in trying to understand what the narrator said.
Why transcripts? (1) Ease of use, (2) makes interview accessible to more people, (3) increased longevity of the format. Scholars prefer the transcript over the original recording in most cases. The public may be more interested in a brief oral or visual account. Also, the transcription process is important as a way to engage in self-reflection and as a self-training exercise for the next interview.
Transcribing is more of an art than a science. The first draft of your interview on paper may be pretty indecipherable. The more you do, the more you’ll be able to edit the recording on the fly. Be careful, but remember that time is always running out on you. You stand on the razor’s edge in preparing the transcript.
Why edit, especially given the consequences of turning an oral source into a written document? The written document has authority. You are adding context to the interview. Cleaning up the texts also reduces the dynamic range of the sources, but also makes them usable in many more scholarly contexts. Can the transcript be more “valid” than the source tape? Is the linguistic act itself repressive? Is the transcription process more so? You are disciplining speech here, are you not?
Oral histories should always be honestly critical. This does not mean that you are necessarily criticizing the person being interviewed, but you are editing for comprehension and posterity so be careful. You prepare the first draft of the transcript and edit it. Include both the questions and the answers. Then you pass it along to the interviewee for their corrections and addendums. This courtesy is extended in the interests of fair play (the oral history suddenly becomes concretized or “real” or “alien”) and because the interviewee is a co-author in the process. Be careful that the transcript does not become infringed by someone else’s copyright by the inclusion of published material added to the narrative by the narrator. This does happen. The interviewee may be under the impression that an oral history is synonymous with an autobiographical memoir. It’s not.
Some researchers view transcription as mutilation. Don’t give them excuses to complain. Tamper with the dialogue only to increase comprehension without removing it from its status as an oral document. The interviewee will likely want to “read smart” even if they do not sound articulate or use appropriate syntax on the tape. Do not rearrange whole passages unless reader comprehension demands it, and warn the interviewee about the change.
Project the rhythm of the original interview as much as possible. Correct wrong verb tenses and pronouns. Remove false starts and words broken off in the middle. Eliminate redundancies and confusing digressions. Keep a few crutch expressions and many contractions to preserve the personality of the document and its source. There will invariably remain sentences which are not sentences, odd syntax, and strange punctuation marks when you are finished. The em-dash can become your friend. Preserve the distinctiveness of oral language and testimony.
Some oral historians use orthographic symbol systems to communicate non-verbal responses in the transcription. Researchers in some disciplines use oral histories as linguistic exercises. [Dennis Tedlock has written about oral history as poetry.] Linguists today are concerned with more than just the formalism inherent in generative and transformative grammar. They are concerned with the actual performance and reception of that performance. Linguistics allows us to study the nature of questioning and the nature of the respondent’s answers. We can get at the relationship dynamics between participants and actors in “spontaneous” discourse. Every interview is a social situation that can be dissected. We can concentrate upon the coded, regular and predictable nature of these relations rather than their manipulation, and view them not only as analytical devices but also as relations which have their base in some form of a material reality. We can take the commonplace and make it anthropologically strange. Deborah Tannen and Walter Ong have explored the rules of communication in this way using discourse analysis techniques.
You will be asked only to indicate any important gestures that are not communicated on the tape. Note also long pauses in the transcript that took place during the taping. Add “END OF INTERVIEW” to the end of the transcript.
The auditing step, having someone else listen to the recording while reading through the transcript is the most often overlooked step in all professional oral history. What you will be asked to do is go over the transcript and highlight any missing or obscured dialogue or any missing spellings of words.
Above all the transcription process is an ongoing conversation between you and the subject (with a definite end). Always maintain a good public relations front. Keep open the doors of communication and don’t react negatively immediately to any request they may have. But also impress upon them the importance of the process and the final product. Reserve the right to add footnotes for clarification or where facts contradict in the final draft. Annotation is a very important part of the editorial process.
Put copies of relevant documents or illustrations in an appendix attached to the transcript.
Archiving & Accessibility
There is a good chance that this will be the only time an interviewee ever has their thoughts formally recorded. Share a copy of the transcript with the interviewee. Save it in a form that will be accessible for posterity.
Which is more important, the tape or the transcript? I think both are important. Nearly everyone who accesses your interview will be relying on the transcript. However, someone who is trying to draw a personal portrait of the interviewee will want to listen to or watch the source copy. Keep the tape. Orthographics is a poor substitute for the original sound or video recording.
The Internet has thrown open to millions the door to interview transcripts and audio archives. Within reason, put the resources where people can get access to them. The downside of Internet distribution of oral history accounts is the ease of Google-stalking. Uploading is more powerful than publishing. Is uncontrolled and anonymous access desirable? We have the largest archive of material on Arkansas history here at UCA, a good place for depositing oral histories.
Types of Oral History Products
Oral history is a means to an end, and not usually an end in itself. The product should reflect the needs of the audience, or what effects you are trying to communicate to that audience. Historians traditionally have written for other historians who are judging their work and opening up publishing opportunities. History is what historians say it is. Professionalization means controlling the borders. Oral history is one way of smuggling things through the borders. The canons of history are very important to learn, but they can also keep you from developing new ones, and can keep good people from ever becoming part of the profession.
History is not just the sum total of discrete experiences. Historians will never be replaced by an audio or videotape. The interview just does not exist by itself without be propped up by others. People don’t just recognize the value of things spontaneously. And though there’s nothing wrong with celebration, celebration of something is not inquiry.
What can you do with oral history? Studs Terkel’s book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1974) was turned into a musical version by Stephen Schwartz in 1980. Terkel was a Jewish American born in 1912. He spent most of his life in Chicago. He worked on the WPA writer’s project and was a radio soap opera performer. His first book was Giants of jazz (1956) about northern migration of black talent into the Chicago area. His second book was Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. He received the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for The Good War (about World War II). It challenged the notion that WWII was a time of solidarity, goodwill, and unity (unlike Vietnam).
Terkel wrote something of a socialist manifesto. He’s been criticized for his cut-and-paste methods. He probably fabricated some passages out of whole cloth or by putting different stories together into one. He never reveals the original transcripts, often cutting them from 60-70 pages to 6-7 for use. He is an artist more than a professional oral historian. It was sociological commentary. He was highly critical of the stranger society that was beginning to characterize American society and community. He wanted to inspire the voiceless, the powerless, the hopeless. His book revealed a time of long gas lines, high inflation, the loss of confidence, and unemployment. In the musical, the actors seem demoralized, tired, overworked. The meaning of work seems reduced even though work is essential to the human spirit. It features stars early in their careers, like Barry Bostwick, Barbara Hershey, Rita Moreno, Patti LaBelle, Scatman Crothers (from Chico & the Man).
Archivists argue for oral histories as primary sources. Social historians say that oral histories are interpretive by nature. In the United States the transcript is the product of oral history. It is a first interpretation, says my intellectual grandfather Saul Benison, filtered through a particular individual experience at a particular moment of time. A minority argue that oral history is just raw material similar to any other source. I take the middle path: Oral history transcripts are limited documents upon which may be constructed a new historical synthesis. In the longest run the interviews themselves will prove much more useful to scholars than the texts grafted upon them. Which brings us to the source tape …
In Canada and the United Kingdom the audiovisual recording is the product of the oral history, and the transcript serves as a guide to the audio tracks. The soundscape is crucial in this practice. Sound qualities captured include surroundability, directionality, and continuity. Curriculum Development
It may be that one of the ultimate values of oral history is that it is a magnificent way of training a young historian to do history.
Oral history can motivate learners, as students are practicing the social studies “almost without realizing it.” It can help students develop rapport with their elders and become “rooted in the past” and an “active part of the present.” Oral history can suffer from inadequate time for preparation. The Foxfire model for creating a local oral history magazine began in 1966. Encourage practice interviewing on each other.
Oral History Documentaries/Musicals/Websites/Radio/Interpretive Skits
There are no limits to the ways in which orality can be presented to a written culture and a visual culture.
Criticisms of Oral History
Scholars privilege written documents over other sources because of the presumed precision of thought that can be found in these sources. There are specific grammatical rules governing or structuring all well-written documents. Other types of sources, by contrast, are said to be unsystematic. However, historians have long felt that written documents lack human direction and spontaneity. Pre-censored and prepared for special purposes, they reveal only formal relationships, and are innocent of the lives of the vast numbers of poor and working people.
All sources of evidence need to be tested and verified against other sources. Historians have a rule of thumb: where possible, all facts should be checked three times against different sources. Oral historians often have an end goal in mind, a hypothesis that will be tested, and this means that bias can creep into the process. Some experts say that it is better to separate out the product of oral history research from the process. That is to say, the people who use the oral histories should not be the same people who take the oral histories. Of course, the problem there is that the people who are taking the oral histories do not have a firm idea of the kinds of questions that might be valuable; it is instead all of equal value.
The Politics of Community Memory
Oral history is considered by some historians to be an unreliable source for the study of history. Why are they skeptical? Trained to depend on written records, traditional historians have been known to shudder in horror at the potential problems and inherent weaknesses of oral history. What of the failings of human memory? What of the human tendency to impose a narrative structure on events that may not be closely connected? What of the self-serving motives of the story teller? What of the power relationships between interviewer and interviewee that affect what and how events are reported? What of the differences between the spoken and written word? What of the inaccuracies that creep into meaning when trying to put a conversation onto paper?
Well, many of the same problems arise in using written records. Written sources can carry personal or social biases. Written sources occur within a social context.
What problems do newspapers have? As an example, newspaper accounts contemporary with events often suffer from historical inaccuracy because of the ideological slants of reporters and editorial staff, because of the availability of sources, because of advertisers’ interests, and because of the need to sell interesting stories that the public wants to buy. Yet these same newspaper accounts can be used as historical evidence of people's attitudes and interpretations. Even historical analysis published by professional historians intent on upholding the best standards in their field still falls short of that elusive goal, a complete and totally objective account of events.
Experience within literate cultures indicates that each time anyone reconstructs a memory, there are changes in the memory, but the core of the story is usually retained. Over time, however, minor changes can accumulate until the story becomes unrecognizable.
Other historians consider it to be a valid means for preserving and transmitting history. In oral history projects, an interviewee recalls an event for an interviewer who records the recollections and creates a historical record.
Event --> interviewee --> interviewer --> historical record
Oral history depends upon human memory and the spoken word. The means of collection can vary from taking notes by hand to elaborate electronic aural and video recordings.
Oral historians attempt to record the memories of many different people when researching a given event. Since any given individual may misremember events or distort their account for personal reasons, the historical documentation is considered to reside in the points of agreement of many different sources, rather than the account of any one person.
Who has the best memory of events? When is the best time to interview? Is faulty memory of any interest to the oral historian? The human life span puts boundaries on the subject matter that we collect with oral history. We can only go back one lifetime, so our limits move forward in time with each generation. This leads to the Oral Historian’s Anxiety Syndrome, that panicky realization that irretrievable information is slipping away from us with every moment.
Oral history is now often used when historians investigate history from below. History from below is a form of historical narrative which was developed as a result of the Annales School and popularized in the 1960s. This form of social history focuses on the perspectives of ordinary individuals within society as well as individuals and regions that were not previously considered historically important. This includes women and the working class, as well as regions such as India or Africa.
The Annales was founded and edited by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre in 1929, while they were teaching at the University of Strasbourg. These authors quickly became associated with the distinctive Annales approach, which combined geography, history, and the sociology to produce an approach which rejected the predominant emphasis on politics, diplomacy and war of many 19th century historians.
Instead, they pioneered an approach to a study of long-term historical structures (la longue durée) over events. Geography, material culture, and what later Annalistes called mentalities or the psychology of the epoch are also characteristic areas of study. Annales historians sideline the sensational, are reluctant to simply account for events, strive on the contrary to pose and solve problems and want to observe on the long and medium term the evolution of economy, society and civilization.
Lapses of Memory
Some critics have said that recording oral history is a terroristic act made upon memory. Different eyewitnesses to history will give different accounts, as is true of witnesses to crimes or accidents. Generally speaking, the longer in the past you are asking someone to describe events the less precision you are going to receive. Memory is best served by capturing events relatively quickly after they occur. “Documents written while events were happening” provide the most reliable evidence. You can counteract some of this by bringing along newspaper clippings, photos, or artifacts to the interview.
People also tend to remember the good times and the bad times, and much less in between. The good old days were horrible old days, and things were far more complex back then than anyone is willing to give them credit for. And what’s more frightening than a million dollars? Their MEMORY is TRUE, even if the TRUTH lies in a different direction. FACTS are not always TRUTH. Memories are the experiences of your subjects; that’s why we call them “memory books” and not “history books.” History is a form of coded memory.
The interviewer shares authority with the interviewee in the taking and edition of oral history narratives. The questioner legally becomes the co-author of all oral history audio files and transcripts. The Columbia Oral History program in the early days used to discard the interviewer’s questions in the process of editing the transcripts to eliminate this second author’s views, which they found as unimportant.
The subject may be anxious, too anxious, to please and attempt to tell the interrogator what he or she thought the interviewer wanted to hear. They key is to make your role as co-author unobtrustive. You should always endeavor to keep your own opinions and arguments out of the edited narrative. Intersubjectivity allows for liberating collaborations. You want the knowledge and they want to give it to you. Worse than sentimentalizing and losing perspective is remaining cold and detached. You can’t understand it if you remain outside the situation, sort of a statement about truth as subjectivity. Best case: develop a split personality – one side is empathetic and self-involved, and the other is detached and observant. What we need is a science of the subjective! Are personalities more important than techniques?
Portelli noted that the interview situation is “an exchange between two subjects; literally a mutual sighting.”
Oral History as First Layer of Interpretation
When you take down a myth on paper you are freezing it. Taking down the memories of past events can freeze the present. This makes them nostalgia items. A top ten list of favorite pop songs from your teenage years is freezing a myth. The very taking and editing of oral histories provide the first and second layers of interpretation. All history is selection, and the questions you’ve asked are part of that selection process. This means that oral histories are not unsullied primary sources. But then, very few sources accessible to another person are really only primary in nature.
Presentism/Creating Usable Pasts
You may encounter people with no past and no future. They will be very presentist in their outlook. It’s always been this way and always will be this way. They will have no concept of history. However, it may be that these very same people have been denied a history. These are people who don’t matter, or don’t think that they matter. Your job might be to give them one.
As much as possible, don’t fall into this trap. Beware recasting the story collected in the interview to fit your present needs. It doesn’t all need to be usable information that you collect. In fact, I’d smell a rat in your transcript if no rambling off-topic narrative occurs. Anecdotes and apocryphal accounts can make your subject more engaging. Don’t assume that anything contradicting your suspicions is necessarily “wrong.” Resist the view that the past is essentially just the pattern, the formwork, for the present.
Each age has its own TRUTH, and they demonstrate it every day by casting and recasting a usable past. Have you ever read the children’s book The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown (author of Goodnight Moon)?
Can the oral historians overcome the collective unconscious of the population in which we live? Can we stand apart? You will not be able to escape this problem because you live in this time. The documents that we produce are not the product of the age we are investigating. They are the products of the here and now. Ironically, it will be our ultimate failure to manipulate the interviews that will make future analyses by other people possible! But you can become aware of your potential biases. We are taking our interviewees and ourselves on a real-time crash course in Honors Core I. Our best interviews should force people to make their lives anthropologically strange. We should ask people to justify actions and ideas which they in the course of their lives never dreamed needed justification. Most people do not go through life constantly questioning what they do or consciously seeking and weighing their motivations.
The historian Barbara Tuchman has discussed the problem of overdocumentation at some length. She has complained that in many cases oral historians are collecing trivia and giving what should have been forgotten a new life by recording it and passing it on to others as history. She compared the tape recorder to “a monster with the appetite of a tapeworm.” There is accuracy, and then on the other hand there is what history should know.
Our problem in modern computerized society is not, except in odd cases, the problem of forgetfulness but rather the problem of being overwhelmed with reminiscences and memories flowing in uninterrupted and seemingly unrelated fashion. We suffer from infoglut and the manifestation of that disease is lack of a systematic view of the world. Memory is a machine trait. Forgetting and selectivity are human traits.
We have a records management problem too. Libraries are bulging with unused collections, presidential archives are crammed with interviews that nobody is going to be allowed to see, and local historical agencies are generating oral testimonies every day that are going to remain unnoticed for generations to come. That’s why you have to be creative, like the folks at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, who came up with the oral history Project Jukebox idea in 1988.
Tuchman is also concerned that we are enshrining the ordinary in our oral history projects. Is there such a thing as a wisdom of crowds? Or can we defend elite history? Can oral history illuminate power as well as powerlessness?
Mythmaking is a conservative, cohesive force in the universe. It perpetuates culture. Myth is memory that is relatively immune to reinterpretation, but it can acquire its own history over time. Myth has more structure and form than ordinary history. Myths also do not require empirical validation. They are a form of public, collective memory. Ideology is a liberal movement in the universe. It effects radical change. It is a mobilizer. Ideologies are structures in history. “Warren Susman says that “myth sets the stage; ideology gets the show on the road.”
Narrators mobilize myth and ideology to make sense of what happened to them. They create ideologies of potent force to explain the meaning of what had happened to them. Cultural values color testimonies, determine the choice of words, what events to describe, and the significance attached to them. Interviewees will distort the chronology and historical perspective in order to turn them into examples to be followed. History is a very dangerous weapon. It is the weapon we use to indoctrinate our children. It is the way we build ideologies and we all know that wars have arisen out of devotion to certain ideologies.
With great power comes great responsibility. The preparation of the oral history involves bending reality to your will. There is no doubt about it. The myths you are making are also shaping the worldview of the people you encounter.
People tend to make sense of their recollections, and do so more and more as they age. They are trying to make sense of their lives and fit it into an overarching context so that they can make meaning of their thinking and actions. The past “marches in review,” especially for older people. Interviews are often created after the fact and reflect the participants’ self-conscious attempts to preserve what they remember for the future.
People want to make sense out of their lives, even when their actions seem to make little sense in retrospect. Not everyone acts rationally all of the time. As your book says, “Not all human activity is coherent and purposeful.” Also, nonsensical actions can later take on new meaning and become significant all out of proportion to their particular impact at the time they took place. Some people will take the reconstruction of the past all the way to self-delusion. But if detected this can also teach you something about the historical problem. Some of the most interesting things never happened. The way people view their personal histories is worthy of historical investigation. Mostly, though, people want to survive the interview with some semblance of their soul still intact. On the other hand, the absence of knowledge about the past perpetuates myths about it, and contributes to maintaining the status quo. Myths may seem to talk about events which to us would have to be imaginary, but even imaginary dialogues are full of things that really happened.
Our generation might be the one most readily and comprehensively documented, and most easily lost forever. Obsolete formats. Costs of preservation. Microcassettes and plaintext are the only universal formats. What will happen when the power goes out?
- Arkansas Traveler’s Project (contact: Alli Hogue)
- New Urbanism, Gentrification (contact: Patrick Taylor)
- Clinton Library inner workings (contact: Skip Rutherford, Jose Guzzardi, Amanda Harris)
- Clinton Library, Heifer International, Doe's Eat Place visit (contact: David Williams)
- UCA Folklore Collection (contact: Jimmy Bryant)
- Deborah Tannen and linguistic analysis (contact: Amanda Allen)
- Grant Writing (contact: Amanda Allen)
- watch segments of Vaginia Monologues, Working
- videotape an interview with the sound turned down; look at non-verbal cues
- Give an Overview of an Oral History Project or Collection
- Downtown Revitalization
- Write FranaWiki entries
- Develop your questions
- Develop a common thematic set of questions for project interviews
- Read and Critique an existing Honors College Oral History transcript: Clinton Project, Rick Scott, Women’s Abuse, HCOL history
- In class critiques of oral history interviews
- Improving your methods/Reflecting on Interviews Conducted/Retrospective essay evaluating your performance in the project
- Practice Interviewing on Each Other
- Personal Project
- Linda Shopes, "Making Sense of Oral History"
- Clinton Library & Downtown Little Rock Project
- Practice Interviewing on Doctor/Final Exam