And My Heart Broke

Do you know what it feels like to watch history fade away before your own eyes and not be able to do a thing to save it? Do you know how it feels to know that within a short period of time, certain invaluable memories will be erased?  It pulls at my heart in a way similar to an abandoned house doomed for demolition does or the way lonesome washed-up towns look in photographs. This is partially a result of knowing that no one else has bothered to save this history and partially because I can’t do anything about it.

If you have ever worked in the oral history field or conducted research using oral history, there is a good chance that you know exactly what I mean.  Oral history has its positives and negatives, just like any form of research. It captures stories that would have never been heard or found otherwise, but your research is often at the mercy and kindness of your interviewees.  Ethically, you cannot interview someone and use that information without their permission. Interviewees must sign (what I call) a Deed of Gift form, which grants permission for the transcript and recording in the current project and sometimes, future use. The majority of interviewees are happy to sign the form and aid the project, but some people will refuse.

I have had a few people refuse to sign a deed of gift in my oral history experience. And no matter how much you explain to them the benefits of the particular project or show them exactly how their transcript and recordings will be used, no matter how much you reason with them, they will not concede. And there are only so many rounds of discussions you can have before it’s just too much and too exhausting (mentally and emotionally) and there is no more you can do.

Why would someone refuse? The reasons vary, but in my experience it has been because he or she did not like how the interview transcript read. Most people are shocked by their spoken words being directly translated on to paper. We all speak differently than we write, so reading oral history transcripts can be quite the trip. I assume only the most eloquent public speakers have near perfect transcripts.  This shock turns into vanity, which can be easily erased with the explanation of the transcript use.

Except for one case that I know: One interviewee could not fathom sharing this transcript (or even a few paragraphs of excerpts) with the public because she felt that she sounded less than educated, whereas she had indeed attended higher education to earn her M.A. After over one year of discussing and trying to convince her by demonstrating uses of the transcripts and explaining its value, she finally decided once and for all that she would not participate.

And my heart broke. Her memories are so important and rare and would complement the rest of the project. I should mention that her transcript read just fine, on par with the best interviews. It’s so sad to me that people could let vanity get in the way of sharing history, especially when they might be of the few who still know that information. Now, I cannot pass on this interview, not even to the archives. Nor can I tell this story because I’d have to cite the interview.  And so the memories will disappear.

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Readers, am I missing anything? Is there a solution I haven’t found? Please help if you can.