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Oral History Sample Essay

IV. Issues in Oral History Research

Once a project is under way, we need to assess and ensure the accuracy of the data gathered. We have to face the question: how accurate is this oral history? At the very least, we must be aware of the limitations of oral history in order not to mislead ourselves into believing that oral history automatically yields accurate renditions of past events.

Because oral history depends upon living people as sources, we have limits; we can go back one lifetime. Because oral history uses spoken, not written sources, the allowable evidence expands. Even in the absence of written documentation, groups such as women, minorities, and the not-famous have been able to record their own histories and the histories of those they consider important using oral history. History is no longer limited to the powerful, famous, and rich, and literate. Now history can give us a much more inclusive, and, one hopes, accurate picture of the past.

Used to accurately record oral narratives, the inexpensive portable tape recorder helped democratize the gathering of history. Interestingly, while technology in the form of the tape recorder is responsible in part for the spread of oral history techniques, technology is also to blame in part for the need for oral history. Rather than write letters, for instance, people travel to see each other or they make telephone calls that dissolve into air. Now electronic mail via computers may make written records even more scarce.

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. 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.

How about films and photographs? Can the camera remain objective and give us an accurate view of events? No. Even visual media give only fragments. Furthermore, the photographer chooses to record a portion of an event, and her point of view suggests an interpretation. The equipment, social context, and intent of the photographer affect what photographs will be recorded, what will be printed, and how it will be presented to viewers.

In oral history, in addition to asking all of the historian's usual questions about accuracy, one must also ask questions about putting spoken words on paper. At first one tends to assume that a transcription of a tape-recorded interview of an eyewitness would be a very accurate record of an event. As historians we must examine that assumption.

We all know how hard it is to find the right words for our thoughts. In an interview, with a stranger listening and a tape recorder running, how closely can the actual words of the interviewee approximate the thoughts that the interviewee wants to communicate? We all know the tricks that memory plays on us, even just trying to recall what happened last week. In recalling memories from a long-ago event, how closely do the memories of the narrator approximate a true rendering of the actual experience?

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.

We come to realize, then, that every person, every step, removes one farther from the event as it happened.

Questions of accuracy are not unique to oral history. Problems of accuracy hound us no matter what sources of historical data we use. If we understand the characteristics of our sources, however, we have a better chance of controlling the process to minimize inaccuracies. As a methodological balance to oral history, one can enlist other sources of data such as related artifacts, written documentation, and other interviews. A single interview by itself can pose frustrating questions, while an interview in a context of other data can clarify details and create a sense of the whole.

Therefore, the users of oral history, aware of the characteristics of their medium, may proceed cautiously without apology. Oral history has come of age and now commands a receptive, respectful audience.

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Understanding Oral History

What is oral history?

  • Oral history is the systematic collection of living people's testimony about their own experiences. Oral history is not folklore, gossip, hearsay, or rumor.Oral historians attempt to verify their findings, analyze them, and place them in an accurate historical context. Oral historians are also concerned with storage of their findings for use by later scholars. (Do History.org)
  • Oral history is the recording of people’s memories, experiences and opinions. It is a living history of everyone’s unique life experiences,
    • An opportunity for those people who have been ‘hidden from history’ to have their voice heard
    • A rare chance to talk about and record history face-to-face
    • A source of new insights and perspectives that may challenge our view of the past. (Oral History Society UK)
  • Oral history refers both to a method of recording and preserving oral testimony and to the product of that process. It begins with an audio or video recording of a first person account made by an interviewer with an interviewee (also referred to as narrator), both of whom have the conscious intention of creating a permanent record to contribute to an understanding of the past. A verbal document, the oral history, results from this process and is preserved and made available in different forms to other users, researchers, and the public. A critical approach to the oral testimony and interpretations are necessary in the use of oral history. (Oral History Association)

Resources About Oral History and the Interview Process

  • Doing Oral History by Donald A. Ritchie
    Publication Date: 2003-08-07
    Oral history is vital to our understanding of the cultures and experiences of the past. Unlike written history, oral history forever captures people's feelings, expressions, and nuances of language. But what exactly is oral history? How reliable is the information gathered by oral history? Andwhat does it take to become an oral historian? Donald A. Ritchie, a leading expert in the field, answers these questions and in particular, explains the principles and guidelines created by the Oral History Association to ensure the professional standards of oral historians. Doing Oral History has become one of the premier resources in oral history. It explores all aspects of the field, from starting an oral history project, including funding, staffing, and equipment to conducting interviews; publishing; videotaping; preserving materials; teaching oral history;and using oral history in museums and on the radio. In this second edition, the author has incorporated new trends and scholarship, updated and expanded the bibliography and appendices, and added a new focus on digital technology and the Internet. Appendices include sample legal release forms andinformation on oral history organizations. Doing Oral History is a definitive step-by-step guide that provides advice and explanations on how to create recordings that illuminate human experience for generations to come. Illustrated with examples from a wide range of fascinating projects, this authoritative guide offers clear,practical, and detailed advice for students, teachers, researchers, and amateur genealogists who wish to record the history of their own families and communities.
  • The Oral History Manual by Barbara W. Sommer
    Call Number: D16.14 .S69 2009
    Publication Date: 2009-06-16
    The Oral History Manual is designed to help anyone interested in doing oral history research to think like an oral historian. Recognizing that oral history is a research methodology, the authors first define oral history and provide an overview of its various applications. They then examine in detail the processes of planning and doing oral history, which include articulating the purpose of interviews, determining legal and ethical parameters, identifying narrators and interviewers, choosing equipment, developing budgets and record-keeping systems, preparing for and recording interviews, and caring for interview materials. The Oral History Manual provides a road map for all oral history practitioners, from students to public historians.
  • Recording Oral History by Valerie Raleigh Yow
    Call Number: D16.14 .Y68 2005
    Publication Date: 2005-04-07
    In this second editon of Recording Oral History, Valerie Raleigh Yow builds on the foundation of her classic text. One of the most widely used and highly regarded textbooks ever published in the field, Yow's updated edition now includes new material on using the internet, an examination of the interactions between oral history and memory processes, and analysis of testimony and the interpretation of meanings in different contexts. Written in a clear, accessible style, this new volume offers historians, social scientists and other practitioners engaged in this difficult, rewarding work a scholarly and practical guide to the methods of oral history. It will interest researchers and students in a wide variety of disciplines including history, sociology, anthropology, education, psychology, social work and ethnographic methods.
  • Transcribing and Editing Oral History by Willa K. Baum
    Call Number: Available via LINK+
    Publication Date: 1991-01-01
    Willa Baum once again shares her enormous knowledge of oral history in her second AASLH book, focusing this time on what to do when ending interviews, how to decide whether or not to transcribe, how to process data, and how to transcribe. Also provided are detailed instructions on auditing tapes, editing, working with legal agreements, indexing, and more.
  • The Tape-Recorded Interview by Edward D. Ives
    Call Number: AVAILABLE VIA LINK+
    Publication Date: 1995-07-28
    Since 1980, The Tape-Recorded Interview has been an essential resource for folklorists and oral historians - indeed, for anyone who uses a tape recorder in field research. When this book was first published, the reel-to-reel recorder was the favored format for fieldwork. Because the cassette recorder has almost completely replaced it, Ives has revised the first chapter, How a Tape Recorder Works, accordingly and has included a useful discussion of the differences between analog and digital recording. He has also added a brief section on video, updated the bibliography, and reworked his original comments on tape cataloguing and transcription. As in the first edition, Ives's emphasis is on documenting the lives of common men and women. He offers a careful, step-by-step tour through the collection process - finding informants, making advance preparations, conducting the actual interview, obtaining a release - and then describes the procedures for processing the taped interview and archiving such materials for future use. He also gives special treatment to such topics as recording music, handling group interviews, and using photographs or other visual material during interviews.
  • A Shared Authority by Michael Frisch
    Call Number: AVAILABLE VIA LINK+
    Publication Date: 1990-05-17
    "Frisch's essays penetrate the historical consciousness of the nation and expose its distortions. He is not afraid to 'depart from the usual academic form.' This volume ranges from insightful essays and interviews to book and film reviews, but despite its sweep of subjects and form, its pieces build coherently upon each other. This is an entertaining, illuminating, and provocative body of work. "Two pieces from the book-evaluating the New York Times' editing of oral history for publication, and the PBS documentary "Vietnam: A Television History"-provide especially strong examples of the intellectual insight and importance of this book. Both analyze not only the content of the presentations but the omissions, penetrating the values of the editors and raising serious questions about the packaging of history for the public. "Frisch lends a critical ear to the public presentation of history, particularly history drawing from oral sources. He hears not only what was said, but who said it, and what was asked of them. He questions the assumptions and motivations that transformed oral testimony into publications and documentary films, and the ways in which those products have been popularly received." - Donald A. Ritchie, U.S. Senate Historical Office

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