Mellon Project on Folklore, Ethnomusicology, and Oral History in the Academy Background Paper: Oral History Definitions

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Mellon Project on Folklore, Ethnomusicology,

and Oral History in the Academy
Background Paper: Oral History

Let us begin with a discussion of definition, both to establish a framework for what follows and to raise at the outset key issues in thinking about and doing oral history that will resurface later in this essay. “Oral history,” like the term “history,” has both several popular or vernacular meanings, as well as a more precise scholarly or disciplinary meaning. In common parlance, oral history sometimes refers to recorded speech of any kind; or to talking about the past in ways ranging from casual reminiscing among family members, neighbors, or coworkers to ritualized accounts presented by culturally sanctioned tradition-bearers in a formal setting. Most typically, it refers to what we might call personal experience stories about a particular time or place or event, a form apotheosized by the work of Studs Terkel, whose multiple volumes of oral history have certainly popularized the term; and more recently of David Isay, whose StoryCorps project is rekindling interest in the storied quality of everyday life. Commonly, the term registers a certain democratic or populist meaning; oral history implies a recognition of the heroics of everyday life, a celebration of the quotidian, an appeal to the visceral.1
For scholars, however, oral history generally has a more precise, bounded meaning. The Oral History Association defines oral history as “a method of gathering and preserving historical information through recorded interviews with participants in past events and ways of life.” Donald Ritchie, in his popular guide, Doing Oral History, describes it as “collect[ing] memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews.” He continues: “An oral history interview generally consists of a well-prepared interviewer questioning an interviewee and recording their exchange in audio or video format. Recordings of the interview are transcribed, summarized, or indexed and then placed in a library or archives. These interviews may be used for research or excerpted in a publication, radio or video documentary, museum exhibition, dramatization or other form of public presentation.” And Valerie Yow, in her well regarded Recording Oral History, states that oral history is the recording of personal testimony delivered in oral form.” Distinguishing this practice from memoir, she notes that in oral history “there is someone else involved who frames the topic and inspires the narrator to begin the act of remembering, jogs memory, and records and presents the narrator’s words.” Recognizing that various terms are used to describe this same activity, she concludes that “oral history seems to be the [term] most frequently used to refer to the recorded in depth interview.”2
These definitions suggest five characteristics of oral history as a professional, disciplined practice. It is, first of all, an interview, an exchange between someone who asks questions, that is, an interviewer, and someone who answers them, variously referred to as the interviewee, narrator, or informant. It is not simply someone telling a story; it is someone telling a story in response to the particular queries of another. Second, oral history is recorded, preserved for the record, and made accessible to others for a variety of uses. Ritchie goes so far as to say that “an interview becomes an oral history only when it has been recorded, processed in some way, made available in an archive, library, or other repository, or reproduced in relatively verbatim form for publication. Availability for general research, reinterpretation, and verification defines oral history.”3

Third, oral history interviewing is historical in intent. It seeks information about and insights into the past from the perspective of the narrator. It is grounded in historical questions deemed of some significance by either – and hopefully both – parties to the interview. While the same or similar questions may be posed to a number of interviewees in a given project, oral history interviews are not opinion polls or surveys of current attitudes and behaviors of the sort conducted by sociologists, political scientists, or other social scientists. Fourth, oral history recognizes an element of subjectivity; interviews record “memories” and “personal commentaries,” not the unmediated “facts” of what happened in the past. An interview, therefore, is an interpretation of the past; and itself requires interpretation for its meaning to be elucidated. And fifth, an oral history interview is understood as an inquiry “in depth.” It is not a casual conversation, a pleasant little trip down memory lane, but a planned, serious, and searching exchange, one that seeks a detailed, expansive, and reflective account of the past.
As we will see below, this characterization of oral history is grounded in the history of the field and establishes its significance and value as both method and source. For now suffice to say that it is what distinguishes academic from popular notions; and within the academy, defines a particular kind of interviewing. There is, however, a frequent blurring of boundaries, sometimes an uncomfortable disconnect. Scholarly practitioners of oral history working with local groups frequently find that enthusiasm for recording local stories is not matched by an even rudimentary understanding of the methodology involved; and that vernacular understandings of what merits recording and preserving are often at variance with scholarly understandings of the relevant historical questions. And within the academy, there are many examples of scholars both within and outside of the field of history who have conducted what they consider to be oral history interviews who nonetheless fail to make their interviews publicly accessible; or whose interviews focus on contemporary social relations with or without a historical dimension. Is this work properly considered “oral history”? Or not?

It is perhaps clichéd to aver that throughout human history most knowledge of the past has been transmitted orally, in cultural forms ranging from epic poetry to conversation around the dinner table. That this was true before the advent of widespread literacy is indisputable; yet it remains true today for many people, in many parts of the world, and for certain categories of historical knowledge: how many well educated westerners, for example, know the histories of their families by any means other than the spoken word?

More relevant to this discussion, historians have long used oral sources for their work, either conducting interviews of their own or drawing upon first hand accounts recorded and preserved by others. No less than the ancient historian Thucydides interviewed participants for his history of the Peloponnesian War, observing that “different eye-witnesses give different accounts of the same events, speaking out of partiality for one side or the other or else from imperfect memories.”5 The eighth century monk Bede conducted interviews for his History of the English Church and People, as did the nineteenth century French historian Jules Michelet for his History of the French Revolution. Accounts of Aztec and Inca life, recorded by Spanish chroniclers in the sixteenth century, and of nineteenth century Mexican and American settlers in California recorded by Hubert Howe Bancroft and his assistants, remain valuable sources for historians working today. Similarly, Henry Mayhew’s inquiry into the living and working conditions of London’s working classes in the mid nineteenth century is only the first in a long line of investigations that have relied heavily on evidence obtained by talking with the subjects of the inquiry; these social studies have both goaded reform and informed scholarly history. For historians of the United States, perhaps the most notable early collection of interviews are the thousands of life histories of individuals from various regional, occupational, and ethnic groups recorded by Federal Writers Project (FWP) workers during the late 1930s and early 1940s. The best known of the FWP life histories are the "slave narratives;" rediscovered in the 1970s, they have become important sources for a reorientation of the historiography of American slavery from one that views slaves primarily as victims to one that recognizes the active agency of enslaved persons within a system of bondage.6

Yet for all of these and dozens more examples, reliance on oral sources fell into disfavor during the late nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries, as the practice of history became increasingly professionalized and as positivism became the reigning scholarly paradigm. The German historian Leopold von Ranke’s dictum that the goal of history was to recount “how it really was” (wie es eigentlich gewesen) described a form of scholarship that increasingly attempted a reconstruction of the past through careful examination of the (paper) documentary record; or as C.-V. Langlois and Charles Seignobos, two nineteenth century French historians, put it: “The historian works with documents. . . . There is no substitute for documents: no documents, no history.” Reliance on what had often been a more informal practice of talking with people thus became suspect. And indeed, early efforts to record firsthand accounts of the past were often idiosyncratic or extemporaneous affairs, conducted according to methods that were more or less rigorous in any given case and with no intention of developing a permanent archival collection. Furthermore, the absence of audio- and videotape recorders--or digital recording devices--necessitated reliance on human note-takers, thus raising questions about reliability and veracity.7

This then is the context within which the Columbia University historian Allan Nevins established in the late 1940s what is generally accepted as the first oral history program in the United States, the Oral History Research Office at Columbia. Working on a biography of President Grover Cleveland in the early 1930s, Nevins found that Cleveland's associates left few of the kinds of personal records--letters, diaries, memoirs--upon which biographers generally rely. Moreover, he reasoned, the bureaucratization of public affairs was tending to standardize the paper trail, and the telephone was replacing personal correspondence. Nevins came up then with the idea of conducting interviews with participants in recent history to supplement the written record; in his influential Gateway to History, he wrote of the need “for obtaining a little of the immense mass of information about the more recent American past—the past of the last half century—which might come fresh and direct from men once prominent in politics, in business, in the professions, and in other fields; information that every obituary column shows to be perishing.”8 It took a decade for this idea to reach fruition: Nevins and his amanuensis--for these first interviews were recorded in longhand—conducted their first interview in 1948 with New York civic leader George McAneny.

Following the establishment of the Oral History Research Office at Columbia, the University of California at Berkeley set up the Regional Oral History Office in the Bancroft Library in 1954; and five years later, in 1959, the University of California at Los Angeles instituted its Oral History Program, also affiliated with the library. Whereas these and a few other early programs developed interviewing projects on a variety of subjects, generally determined by available funding, other university affiliated oral history projects focused on specific topics: the University of Texas began interviewing pioneers of the oil industry in 1952; Tulane University, its New Orleans Jazz Archives in 1958; the University of Michigan, its United Auto Workers Project in 1959. The Harry S. Truman Library inaugurated its oral history project in 1961, thus initiating the practice of oral history at presidential libraries. Columbia’s 1965 annual report listed some eighty-nine projects nationwide, no doubt fostered in part by the development of recording technologies.9

By the mid-1960s, oral history was well enough established enough to form its own organization: the Oral History Association (OHA) was founded in 1967, a year after an initial meeting brought together some seventy-seven people variously involved in oral history. Louis Starr, who had succeeded Nevins as head of the Columbia program, served as its first president. After publishing its annual proceedings for five years, in 1973 the association began publishing an annual journal, the Oral History Review. Recognizing the need to codify standards for oral history, it developed the first iteration of the current Oral History Evaluation Guidelines: Principles and Standards of the Oral History Association in 1968.10

Unlike previous interviewing initiatives, these early oral history projects were distinguished by their systematic and disciplined approach: they developed a body of interviews on a single topic, were grounded in considerable research in the extant record, and were designed to fill in gaps in that record. They were explicitly archival: the point was to record on tape, preserve, and make available for future research recollections deemed of historical significance. Oral history’s origin as an archival practice of broadly historical intent has shaped its development in significant ways; archival exigencies have defined what are generally understood as fundamental, if not unproblematic, features of oral history and have been codified by the OHA in its various iterations of its Evaluation Guidelines. Two merit our attention here. There is, first of all, the matter of releases: because interviews are intended for the permanent record, laws of copyright obtain; and these laws deem the interviewee to be the owner of the copyright (the status of the interviewer is less clear). It is by means of the legal release form that the interviewee signs over or “releases” to the sponsoring institution – or individual researcher or the repository that accepts completed interviews – rights to the interview. Secondly, there is the matter of transcription: transcribing interviews, that is rendering recorded speech in writing, improves scholarly access enormously; and because the fullest, most accurate account is desired, best practice requires transcribed interviews to be returned to the narrator for corrections, amplifications, emendations.11

The need for releases and the practice of returning transcripts to narrators for review give the narrator enormous control over the presentation of his story, appropriate perhaps in the collaborative enterprise that is an interview, but also problematic: a narrator can place terms and conditions on the release and can delete unflattering, potentially embarrassing but historically significant information from the final transcript. And whether transcripts should be verbatim renderings of what is on the tape or edited documents, akin to publications, remains debatable. Transcribing is also time consuming and expensive and hence the privilege of well funded oral history projects; a constant concern in oral history is the enormous number of untranscribed interviews.

Oral history in the early years was also something of a maverick practice, dismissed by most historians, with their devotion to the documentary record, as unreliable hearsay, a source of anecdote or color but little else. Hence one finds a certain defensiveness among practitioners, an emphasis on the validity, reliability, and representativeness of interviews, an effort to demonstrate that oral history is a source like any other, to be mined in the empirical tradition for facts in service to historians’ reconstruction of the past.12 Oral history’s marginalization within the academy was no doubt furthered by the fact that early programs were typically located within university libraries and archives, rather than within history departments.
In line with the dominant historiography of the period, early oral history programs at Columbia and elsewhere also tended to focus on the "elite"--leaders in business, the professions, politics, and social life. But by the 1970s, oral history's scope had widened considerably, in response to historians’ growing interest in the experiences of "nonelites,” or what became known as the new social history. While archival projects continued to proliferate – a 1973 directory listed some 316 oral history centers – increasingly, individual scholars were finding oral history essential for recovering the experiences of those to whom they were now turning their attention, including women, racial and ethnic minorities, the working classes, and more recently, those marginalized by their sexual identities. While broader social and intellectual currents account for this profound historiographic shift, oral history played an important role: interviews not only added new knowledge about these groups to the historical record; they restored voice, agency, and interpretive authority to those whom the extant record often objectified. To cite only one example, John Bodnar’s 1985 book The Transplanted, its title deliberately playing off Oscar Handlin’s 1951 work The Uprooted and its interpretation deeply influenced by dozens of oral history interviews, represented “the second wave” of Eastern and Southern European immigrants to the United States not as disoriented and “uprooted,” anomic individuals, unable to gain a footing in the new world, but as men and women actively deploying a range of creative strategies to fashion a new life as transplants in the new world.13
Its contributions to new scholarship notwithstanding, as oral history moved out of the archives and into the hands of individual scholars, practitioners did not always adhere to established archival standards with the same rigor as the pioneering oral history projects. Some scholar-interviewers were unwilling to pursue topics that lay outside their immediate areas of interest, thereby limiting interviews’ usefulness to others; and questions arose about their ability to maintain an appropriate level of detachment in light of their own interpretive agendas. In addition, individual scholars, less concerned about the future use of interviews and often with fewer resources than ongoing archival projects, sometimes failed to secure release forms, or to transcribe interviews, or even to place them in public archives.14 Recognizing the need for a wider promulgation of standards for oral history among historians, in 1989 the American Historical Association (AHA), in cooperation with the OHA, developed its “Statement on Interviewing for Historical Documentation,” a shorter document than OHA’s Evaluation Guidelines and directed specifically at scholars conducting interviews as part of their individual research projects.15
Oral history’s capacity for democratizing history extended beyond the subjects of interviews. Increasingly during the 1970s and on into the present, local groups – historical societies, museums, and libraries and also churches, unions, and other grassroots groups – have developed oral history projects to document and celebrate their own history. Indeed, it is probably accurate to state that since the mid-1970s, at least as many oral history projects have been located outside the academy as within it – of the 316 oral history centers identified in the 1973 directory cited above, for example, 159 were located outside of colleges and universities. While full consideration of this work lies outside the scope of this discussion, it also resulted in an important blurring of boundaries, as academic scholars became involved in these community-based projects as organizers, workshop leaders, consultants, and collaborators.
Especially in the early years, many of these projects were grounded in a progressive politics, including especially feminism; they found oral history to be an especially powerful and accessible means of affirming a cultural identity degraded and denied by the dominant culture, as well as a means of consciousness-raising as a prelude to activism and change. Much important work resulted from these projects, including forceful critiques of ivory tower scholarship, the politics of interviewing, and the uses to which the knowledge so generated could and should be put. At times, however, this work lacked analytic rigor and veered towards a romanticization of the people (or the person) under consideration. Michael Frisch, who had criticized the positivist approach to oral history as simply “more history,” in which interviews are understood as “another kind of evidence to be pushed through the historian’s controlling mill,” was equally critical of this romantic strain in oral history, referring to it as “anti-history,” that is, viewing “oral historical evidence because of its immediacy and emotional resonance, as something almost beyond interpretation or accountability, as a direct window on the feelings and . . . [hence] on the meaning of past experience.” At the same time, another strand of community work was quite unselfconsciously conservative in intent, pursuing a past laced with nostalgia, taking delight in the details and rhythms of everyday life in the past with little sense of context. This work has pointed up the much discussed, and much lamented difference between academic and popular notions of history and remains a continuing challenge.16
More recently, scholarly involvement in community oral history projects has taken place under the rubric of “public history.” Of the fifty U.S. programs listed in the National Council on Public History’s 2001 Guide to Graduate Programs in Public History, twenty six include a specialization in oral history;17 the real number is probably much higher. And the scholarly stance now tends towards “negotiation” or dialogue about who gets to tell what about a given community or group, about the way in which a community’s interest in presenting a positive self-image must be held in tandem with a scholar’s interest in a more critical approach. Less well understood, however, is the way local oral history projects can open up new scholarly questions, the way knowledge gleaned from such interviews can suggest new interpretations. Scholars still pretty much approach community work from a supply side perspective – we “supply” you with expertise; there is little discussion, practical or theoretical, of the other side of the equation.18
Some scholars have also connected oral history with broader humanitarian and civic concerns, participating in projects that attempt to document and hence make public human rights abuses in former totalitarian regimes; or to reconcile (former) antagonists; or, like the various 9/11 projects, to memorialize and make sense of events that are at once profoundly tragic and profoundly political. These efforts build upon earlier work to document traumatic historical events like the Holocaust and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, becoming simultaneously a means of documentation, an intervention into what might be termed “unfinished history,” and a form of both individual and collective reckoning.
Given the extent of scholarly involvement in oral history both for both individual research and community or civically based projects, it is probably fair to say that by the last decades of the twentieth century, oral history was reasonably well established and reasonably well accepted within the academy. Several markers of acceptance might be noted: the establishment in 1972 of a decade-long doctoral program in oral history at Duke University, with sizable funding from the Rockefeller Foundation; the wide regard for Theodore Rosengarten’s 1974 book, All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw, based on dozens of hours of interviews with Shaw, a black Alabama sharecropper; the inclusion of an annual section on oral history in the Journal of American History from 1987 to 2002; the recognition accorded to Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World, based on hundreds of interviews conducted by the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina, which in 1988 won both the AHA’s Albert J. Beveridge Award and the Organization of American Historian’s (OAH) Merle Curti Award. An essay appearing in the 1986 issue of the Oral History Review noted that historical journals were routinely reviewing books based on oral history; and since 2001, publications that draw substantially upon oral history have won some twenty-two book and article prizes awarded by the AHA and the OAH.19

Of course, the evidentiary value of oral history as used by social historians has been not without its critics. Historian Louise Tilly, for example, with a decided bias towards quantitative evidence, referred to personal testimony, with its emphasis on the individual, as “ahistorical and unscientific.”20 Nonetheless, the dominance of social history in the academy during the 1970s and 1980s muted much of the earlier criticism directed at oral history; and indeed one of oral history’s greatest contributions to scholarship to date is the role it has played in restoring to the record the voice of the historiographically – if not historically – silent.

Nonetheless, though the intent and topics of oral history interviews had shifted by the 1970s, as a source interviews were generally viewed much as they had been by earlier archival projects, as transparent documents in the positivist tradition, purveyors of facts that were adjudged to be either true or false. Some oral historians, however, were gradually beginning to understand that something more was going on in an interview: that what a narrator said had something to do with the questions posed, the mental set of both narrator and interviewer, and the relationship between them; that narrators were in some ways telling stories, compressing years of living into a form that often was shaped by culturally defined narrative conventions; that memory was not so much about the accuracy of an individual’s recall but about how and why people remembered what they did.
Michael Frisch was perhaps the first to raise these sorts of questions in a 1972 review of Studs Terkel’s Hard Times. Unlike many reviewers, who lionized the book as the pure “voice of the people,” Frisch found the stories of individual failure and collective survival troubling, leading him to ask: “At what distance, in what ways, for what reasons, and in what patterns do people generalize, explain, and interpret experience? What cultural and historical categories do individuals use to help understand and present a view of experience?” By opening up these sorts of questions, Frisch suggested, “oral history . . . encourages us to stand somewhat outside of cultural forms in order to observe their workings. Thus it permits us to track the elusive beats of consciousness and culture in way impossible to do within.” Oral history has similarly been problematized by Ronald J. Grele in a number of essays published in the 1970s and collected in his The Envelopes of Sound: The Art of Oral History. Among his many insights is the especially fruitful one that an interview is a conversational narrative that incorporates three sets of structures, linguistic, performatory, and cognitive; and that an analysis of these structures tells us a good deal about “what is going on” in an interview. And in what is perhaps the most cited article in the oral history literature, Alessandro Portelli analyzed why oral accounts of the death of Italian steel worked Luigi Trastulli, who had been shot during a workers’ rally protesting NATO in 1949, routinely got the date, place, and reason for his death wrong. He argued that narrators manipulated the facts of Trastulli’s death to render it less senseless and more comprehensible to them, that “errors, inventions, and myths lead us through and beyond facts to their meaning.”21
It is difficult to summarize what is a diverse, complex literature, but at bottom is the notion that interviews are hermeneutic acts, situated in history. Meaning is conveyed through language, which in turn is shaped by memory, myth, and ideology. Interviews thus offer clues into narrators’ subjectivities, or more accurately, the play of subjectivities – the intersubjectivity - between narrator and interviewer. They are not documents in the traditional sense, but texts, to be interpreted for ways narrators understand their lives, their place in history, the way history works. Such a view explodes the whole notion of “accuracy” and points to questions of meaning.
While this approach to interviews may have arisen from direct engagement with interviews, it also reflected broader intellectual trends of the last two decades, including cultural studies, or what has been termed “the linguistic turn” in scholarship; and identity politics, with its emphasis on languages of power. It has also been stimulated by the growing internationalization of oral history: beginning in 1979, oral historians from around the world have been meeting biennially under the aegis of what became formalized in 1989 as the International Oral History Association. Beginning in 1980 and through the end of the 1990s, much of the work presented at these meetings was published in a series of journals and annual publications, including the International Journal of Oral History published from 1980 though 1990. Though these means, U.S. oral historians have become conversant with the work of their more theoretically inclined Continental colleagues.
It must be acknowledged, however, that oral history’s move to interpretive complexity has not been fully embraced by all who conduct or use interviews. Some are concerned that critical analyses of interview texts create scholarly products that objectify narrators, distancing them from their own words and from the populist impulses that drive much work in oral history. Others are concerned that a focus on the subjective, textual nature of interviews will obviate the need to triangulate them with other sources and assess their veracity; or, as one colleague has put it, “that it [oral history] will become overly self-conscious and become more concerned about itself than the topics it can be used to explore.”22
Nonetheless, an interest in a more theoretically informed oral history has led some practitioners to look to fields other than history for ways of understanding interviews: psychology, for understanding the interview relationship; communications, for the linguistic nature of the interview exchange; folklore and literary studies, for the storied quality of interviews; anthropology for the culture clash that often occurs as two different mentalities collide within the narrative; performance studies for the performative quality of interviews; gerontology for understanding the way the imperatives of aging shape an interview. Indeed while oral history remains centered primarily within history departments, much of the most creative thinking about oral history comes from practitioners trained and working in these other fields. Oral history may well be among the best – and perhaps least acknowledged - exemplars of what Clifford Geertz some quarter century ago argued was a blurring of genres in scholarly work.23
While interdisciplinarity has thus become the hallmark of much oral history, it is less clear how oral history has penetrated other disciplines in a meaningful way. Certainly some fields employ an interview methodology, but oral historians (if not the practitioners) don’t consider it oral history: the interviews are often ahistorical in intent, on the one hand circumscribed by a narrowly focused set of survey questions, on the other, encompassing a broader fieldwork exchange. Frequently, their interviews are not archived, for many the sine qua non of oral history. A notable exception is the recently published Remembering: Oral History Performance, a collection of essays edited by Della Pollock that derive from the field of communications and seriously engage issues related to the use of oral history in performance. The Interdisciplinary Pain Project at UCLA also shows promise for integrating oral history within a multidisciplinary project in ways that stretch and enrich its work: interviews are being conducted with children living in chronic pain “to reconstruct how narrativity itself is shaped in these conditions, under chronic pain . . . to understand historical consciousness as it takes shape, but in conditions distinct from ‘the normal’."24

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