Are we rolling? oral histories and changing times

An oral history interview with Roosevelt aide JP Warburg.

An oral history interview with Roosevelt aide JP Warburg.

Until president Cleveland, presidential papers had been just that: papers. But while studying the primary documents that the president and his closest associates had produced, Allan Nevins came to an important conclusion: the telephone was changing the way even presidents lived and communicated. Nevins wasn’t the first to conduct oral interviews to strengthen the written record–the WPA had already mobilized an army of writers to interview African-Americans who had lived through emancipation (see the Library of Congress collection) just for one example. But I think Nevin was clued into an important truth: literacy was changing, and if historians wanted to survive, their methods would have to change along with it.

Oral histories today (as a very nice History Matters write-up says,) are usually recorded as audio and made available to researchers as-is. The traditional summarizing and interpretation by researchers, which we’d expect in written interviews, can raise doubts about the “reliability and veracity” of the interview as a primary document. So oral history is a shift in technology, but also a shift in thinking about the role of the interviewer. Taking the American Folklife Center’s Veterans History Project as an example, we see interviews that are clearly offered with a minimum of editing or interpretation: the subjects (an awful lot of old vets sitting in their living rooms,) act as experts on their own lives only, and the interviewers, as much as possible, disappear.

A page from Spokane Pride

A page from Spokane Pride

Spokane Pride is another repository of oral histories that can be accessed online. Growing out of a project by the Odyssey Youth Center in Spokane to highlight LGBT role models, the project collects histories that speak to LGBT experiences. While they might reflect different perspectives, Spokane Pride and the Veterans History Project both speak to oral history’s potential to democratize history, and use the internet to deliver on that potential. Likewise taking the personal histories of enslaved people during the Civil War as their case study, Davidson and Lytle’s View from the Bottom Rail shows that oral histories can correct some of the shortcomings of traditional historiography: the “top-down” perspective and the narrow focus on the written record meant African-Americans were effectively excluded from the record for generations. (155) Well-conducted interviews brought us, finally, some glimpse of what it was like to live through emancipation. So, oral histories are a powerful tool for uncovering the stories, and the people, who might otherwise be rendered invisible by history.

But along with that power, oral history brings new vulnerabilities. The article on History Matters names two fallacies to watch for: “anti-history,” in which we take the interviewee’s testimony as gospel truth, and “more history,” the temptation to collect oral histories without paying due attention to the particular strengths and weaknesses of the field. I wonder if the British Library’s Sound Map project might border on that second danger: collecting “music, spoken word and human and natural environments” in an online database of sounds, it seems to take anything audible and british as fair game. But, as with any source, it is what researchers make of it. If nothing else, projects like the Sound Map demonstrate how much audio has entered the realm of digital sources.

Former slave William Colburt at 93. From the LoC collection of slave narrative.

Former slave William Colburt at 93. From the LoC collection of slave narratives

In particular, oral history has forced historians to look closely at how the presence of the interviewer affects the record. Davidson and Lytle uncover a striking example in which two different interviews of the same woman, conducted mere months apart, yielded radically different statements about the relationships between enslaved African-Americans and whites in the antebellum South. Part of the difference must be accounted for by the contrast in interviewers: Jessie Butler, a white woman, not only asked leading questions (“Don’t you think that was fair?”) but lied about the purpose of her visit, claiming to be from the welfare office. (163) Augustus Ladson, meanwhile, was likely black, and stated his affiliations clearly and honestly. These problems of the interviewer’s role all make me think that the Spokane Pride interviews are probably accomplished with more skill than meets the eye.

What most intrigues me, though, is that oral histories have forced historians, finally, to reckon with the fallibility of memory. In a TED Talk, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus describes her own work studying false or incorrect memories. Memory works “like a wikipedia page,” she says: “you can go in there and change it, but so can other people.” In the height of the 1990s “satanic panic” in the US, Dr. Loftus was critical of the notion of repressed memories that had entered the public imagination so suddenly. But she also details her work in court cases where witnesses’ memories were “contaminated” by other experiences. If oral history brings personal memories greater respect as historical material, then, it also brings new attention to their imperfections.

And maybe that peril, “false memory,” is the one indulgence we can’t fall into now. Oral histories can be enlightening sources, but we’ve learned hard lessons about their limitations and their strengths. We ought to take that as a model for what we’re trying to do right now with digital history: to recognize that the production of knowledge is changing, and we’ll have to change with it.