3 Hours in the Life of an Oral Historian

Oral history is rewarding, insightful, amusing, frustrating, repetitive, and exhausting and this is often all in one day!  Since September 2006 I have completed 30 interviews that total 1600 pages of transcript and 75 hours of recording.  As I work on the public history project (the presentation / product, essentially) I still have a few lingering transcripts that require permission in order to use in any form.  It is quite a task, trying to retrieve all of them.  After each interview, I write a reflection, but once in a while there is a visit that requires a reflection as well, because it is just so memorable. (That or I need to decompress.)  Probably no one will ever read my reflections, but I thought I would post this one to give everyone a sample of part of my day as an oral historian. 

April 2008, Visit with Interviewee

First off, let’s keep in mind that I interviewed this 90 year old woman in 2007.  Since then I have transcribed her interview, delivered it to her, and then began the process of trying to retrieve the transcript.  While the round of phone calls to retrieve the transcripts are always easier than the initial can I interview you phone call… it’s a different kind of hard.  I’m still asking for something from these people, completely at the mercy of everyday folks who have busy lives or the people who just cringe at the sight of their words on paper.  I understand, which is possibly why I hesitate to make phone calls.

For her, the successive phone calls over months always ended the same way: in some manner of wording she’d tell me that she wasn’t feeling well, call back when the weather was better, she’s not sure about the transcript, yadda yadda ya.  Finally in November or somewhere around there, I called and she pretended not to be her! I know her voice. I know she answered the phone.  Perhaps she didn’t recognize me because she doesn’t hear well.  Still!  And I thought, well, there goes another one.  She didn’t respond to any of my sweet messages either.


In the beginning of this month, I decided to send out oral history project update letters to all of our interviewees since it had been about 1.5 years since the interviewees, in some cases.  I didn’t want these people to think we forget about them or that the project fell through.  Shockingly, she called me!  Maybe she remembered everything once she received the letter. (I knew it was a good idea.)  I arranged to go to her apartment today at 10:00 am and get the transcript. Or so I thought…


She was extremely happy to see me and had the letter out and was all set. Luckily, I had a copy of the transcript and deed of gift with me, because she and her nurse just could not find it anywhere.  The meeting began well, but somehow she launched into 40 minute monologue about her physical ailments for the past 30 years.  I’m not kidding.  The beginning was rather interesting, mostly because she somehow survived being rolled under a car and breaking half of her body.  But did I really need to know every doctor’s name, every doctor whom she thought was a crack, every person associated with this ordeal and all of the later affects?  No. Did I want to hear it? No. But what was I supposed to do?  When I had been there over 1 hour, I wanted to scream, but I could do nothing of the sort so I resorted to placing my hands on my lap and squeezing one hand.  It sort of worked, but I was still wondering how long she’d hold me hostage.  Plus, I wanted the permission for the transcript.  So she talked and I listened, appearing as intently as I could.


FINALLY…she finished her story.  Had she been talking about Overhills, I would have listened all day, but ailments? No thanks.  I finally got to ask for her to sign the deed of gift and she said she needed to review the transcript again.  WHAT? The lady had an entire year.  ONE YEAR!  But what else was I going to do?  However, I couldn’t bear to leave that apartment without a deed of gift. It would have been such a waste.  She sincerely said that she would get it back to me, but how was I supposed to believe the woman who pretended not to be herself on the phone?  But, no matter what, she would not concede to sign a deed of gift.


Once I got up to leave, she decided it was time to show me her living room and everything in it.  My gosh.  But I couldn’t leave. I have to appease her because a) she’s 91 so she’s earned it; b) I need her to adore me so she’ll give me back the transcript; c) if I can make the day of a 91 year old, then who am I to internally whine about being tortured by someone’s oral history of their medical ailments.  She just wanted to talk and I’m in the field of making people take pride in their lives and teaching them to talk about their life.  (She, however, must have always been a talker, even if she’s just talking at you.)  All in all, I’m glad to offer company for a few hours to my interviewees and to develop these relationships.  Most people would not even stand for that.  Hopefully I looked interested enough and she’ll actually give me back the transcript. 


She is one of these oral history cases that I’ll always remember; a good portion of that memory will be the talking in 3rd person phone call.  And for the record, I, generally, love my job.


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