Voice as a Powerful Primary Source

As the Overhills project comes to a close, I spend my time organizing files, editing the report, planning its distribution and doing the last few weeks of work and necessary communication that comes with closing a project. I have catalogued over 700 photographs from Overhills, and most of the time I feel it is sewn into my memory. How could I possibly squeeze one more Overhills fact into my brain? Yet this past week we have added two new interviews (i.e. more facts, stories, and memories), one of them a second interview and one a new interviewee that we had never able to find during the interviewing phase.

Prior to this week, the last of the 30+ interviews took place in January 2008. I hadn’t transcribed an interview in its entirety in just as long. This project phase of writing and editing brought me to view Overhills in another angle, in a more reflective, analytical way. Yet now that I am transcribing a few more hours of Overhills stories and memories, I return to that first world of Overhills that I entered.  Listening to these interviews I am reminded of everyone’s love for Overhills and of how this place truly was their home or second home. Listening and transcribing has that effect. I am studying someone’s words, the tone of his voice, and actually seeing what he is saying. It is in his words, spoken and then transcribed, that I am drawn back to Overhills, to the buildings, the people, the day to day life, and the voices that I’ve met and become familiar with throughout this project.  It’s a comfortable world that I’m visiting; I know the peoples and places to which my interviewee refers and I’m content to listen, type, and absorb.

And while I can’t say that, in the past, I have made an effort to pay attention to the audio exhibits at historic sites and in museums, I can say now that if you want to truly understand a place or an event, the best thing to do is to listen to a primary source. A few minutes of an authentic voice sharing history with you, the listener and learner, and you’ll be transported to the scene in history. Reading a transcript or reading an exhibit display does not compare to audio of an oral history project.  The next time I want to truly visit a historic site, event, or landscape, I will eagerly consider the audio tour or exhibit that features audio recordings.

The World of Interviews

During high school, I worked on the school newspaper every year.  My junior and senior years, I enrolled in the journalism class.  I loved everything about journalism and newspaper production: interviewing people, coming up with story ideas, writing, editing (or sometimes slashing), layout, proofreading, captions, terminology, teaching the younger students, and of course, the brand new, hot-off-the-press stack of newspapers.

In college, when I participated in the Veterans History Project through my folklore class, interviewing a subject came naturally to me. My professor told me that my experience in journalism had definitely given me a step-up over people who had never done such a thing. I loved this project. Of course, this foreshadowed my future in oral history.

Yet, despite the lessons I learned in journalism and folklore, the similarities, and the root of wanting to know the story, the fields are incredibly distinct and interviewing for journalism is an entirely different task than conducting an oral history interview.  [By journalism, I mean am referring to typical newspapers, which is not necessarily every facet of journalism].

Generally, news interviews are short and to the point. A news interviewer asks direct questions about what she needs to know.  There isn’t a need for a relationship and extended communication between the interviewer and the interviewee.  Contrarily, an oral history interview is extended, often hours and sometimes multiple meetings. Establishing trust is essential. Following the interview agenda is important, not entirely expected. Most people will address topics irrelevant to the researcher’s goals.  Open ended, but guided questions are the best type to ask. After the interview, according to oral history ethics, the interviewee has the opportunity to review the transcript and any product. The interviewee can retract statements. In journalism, the interviewee has no idea what will appear in the paper.

I make these statements based on my own experiences. Keep in mind, my journalism days are limited to high school and my oral history methods may vary slightly from those of others. But, I mention these basic, stark differences because on a few occasions, potential oral history interviewees have been very wary of the oral history project, or have even refused because they had been misquoted in news articles. Therefore, they no longer trust anyone who uses the word interview.

That’s a fair enough reason, and often people’s fears are soothed with further explanations of the project and the interview process (recording, transcribing, interviewee review).  Many people initially dislike the idea of the interview being recorded, until they fully understand the transcript and availability to review and have a final say.  It’s commonplace in oral history work.

However, the fact that so many people feel they have been misquoted in newspapers in disheartening.  Indeed, I know how they feel. When Jeff and I were interviewed for our book, Overhills, we had no idea what would be in the paper or what snippets would be used, since the reporter barely wrote down anything. I imagine it’s a skill to remember interviews without an audio recorder. As it turns out, the article was fine, but until we were able to read it, the fear of misquotation lingered.

Of course, I imagine people have been misquoted in oral history projects, sometimes accidentally. Transcriptionists may not understand every word and therefore, unknowingly invent entirely new phrases and statements. (Sometimes, this is quite hilarious).  Or a transcript (accuracy unknown) can be the only product used, and extracted passages are not what the interviewee originally said.

Both journalism and oral history have their benefits and disadvantages and the quality from each will depend on the person conducting the research. For instance, a simple, local news story does not require hours of interview time and transcription. A few questions are all that is necessary.  On the other hand, the history of a house or of a town cannot be answered in a few journalism style interviews. Depth is necessary and the human memory works best with time to recall the past.  One field cannot replace the other.

I’m grateful for my time in journalism and oral history, both of which I enjoy. There is great value in both, when done properly. I’d have to say that oral history is much harder and more rewarding than journalism, but of course, that’s to me, since I love history and almost forgotten stories.  Now, if only journalists and oral historians could develop different ways to say “interview”, because I haven’t met anyone scared away from interviews by oral history projects, only those scared away from interviews by newspapers.  

And, call me a creature of habit, but I always prefer to be the interviewer rather than the interviewee.  To me, it’s easier.