Oral History Musings

Among oral historians, there is much discussion on transcription, editing, and how we as interviewers and historians influence and interpret the experience. There are so many factors of influence.  Of course, as historians we influence what someone will say and then how other people will experience what has been said.  From choosing which questions to ask, how to direct the interview, transcription decisions, and what is most important to share with others – an oral history becomes a product of many people.


One of the problems historians face is the fact that they are in the present world.  Unless someone has been living as if he were in that particular time period, modern ideas, conventions, speech all affect how he views and thinks about a subject.  It’s innate and inevitable. I don’t mean to say that people cannot get over this characteristic, but no matter what – someone looking at the present vs. history will always think differently. 


Oral history is just what it is – it’s not 100% accurate due to memory and time and nostalgia, but it’s not necessarily less accurate than anything else.  It’s slow; it’s stuttering speech; it’s changing what someone is saying in the middle of saying something else; it’s a big collection of information.  [For a good article see: Susan Emily Allen Resisting the Editorial Ego]


An issue that I face at work is deciding how well the interviews are represented in the final product (to be a multimedia cd-rom exhibit with audio, photographs, an interactive map, and a timeline).  Is the project using the full potential of the interviews?  What is the purpose of this project?  These are questions to consider when explaining the oral history project (project meaning what will be presented to the public).  This is quite the task with a property that covers 10,500 acres, almost 100 years, and interviewees varying in ages from 50-90 all of whom lived there at different times, and the fact that is a complicated place.


I think it’s hard to capture the full life of every interview without listening to a large portion of every interview.  But in reality, people would not want to listen to every interview. Why not? Because they are slow. Because there are so many false starts and changing of thoughts in the middle of sentences.  Because people don’t have that much time. Because not everything in an interview is interesting – sometimes it’s just chatter.  For these reasons, the multimedia project fits our goals perfectly.


And yes, my voice will filter into parts of the multimedia because of photograph captions and deciding what goes in the timeline.  But it’s inevitable.   I think combining oral history with present interpretations is sometimes necessary and beneficial. I don’t think that takes away from the value of oral history.


Everyone views oral history differently.  I can see it with three varying definitions. Oral history is a practice (interview, transcribe, share), a means to research (by listening and reading materials from the interview), and a subject (how can we do this best? What is the most accurate?  How can we best convey this material to people?)  All uses and methods of oral history are worthwhile.


I don’t claim to be an expert; I’m merely a novice at oral history, considering I’ve only really (professionally) had this 2-3 year project and even though it’s been 30 interviews, it’s just one subject.  Judging by how different every interview is, I don’t know that I could ever become an expert.  But, I don’t think there is anything wrong with sharing oral history in the format of excerpts, whether audio or text.  The reason we do oral history (there it is, as a practice!) is to learn about a particular subject so we can share it. Information is no good unless it’s shared.  Oral history gives people identity and connects them to a period or place or group from which they would be otherwise removed.  Humans like hearing from humans. 


During my relatively short stint of oral history work so far, I’ve come to my own conclusions that oral history will serve a different purpose for every person and every project, and that’s okay.  Transcription should match the interview as close to verbatim as possible and any sort of variation needs to be noticeable and in brackets.  Some oral history projects will be more formal than others.  There is room for all types of oral history and all three forms of it. (Please note that this is just my own way of thinking, nothing tested or proven.)  If oral history is respected and used ethically then it is just as valuable as typical historical text and research, possibly more so if it has the effect of getting people interested in history. 


Two more good articles to read: 1) Transcription: Shadow or Reality by David King Dunaway and 2) For the Record: Editing and Production of Meaning in Oral History by Carl Wilmsen.  All three articles mentioned in this post I found through JSTOR in the Oral History Review. 


*Note: If you have access to JSTOR or another research database, just search for “oral history” and you will find a wealth of articles by people who are a lot more qualified than I am to talk about oral history and more fluent when doing so.  My thoughts are mine only, probably influenced by articles I have recently read, but not necessarily indicative of the oral history field. I welcome debate and lessons.