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Intersections of sister fields

By Sarah Milligan

In March 2012, there was a discussion on the public folklorists’ listserv Publore about the evolution of oral history as a defined discipline and folklorists’ contribution to its development. As an observer and participant in both fields, I see overlap today. The leaderships of both national associations — the Oral History Association (OHA) and the American Folklore Society (AFS) — frequently collaborate on large-scale projects, like the current IMLS-funded project looking at oral history in the digital age. Their annual meetings regularly take place back-to-back. I often joke with colleagues when they ask me about the difference between the two conferences by suggesting that at OHA you might have a librarian or a rocket scientist who practices oral history, and at AFS you would have a folklorist working as a librarian or a rocket scientist.

When Alan Jabbour, former director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, started this 12-day listserv discussion, an interesting dialogue emerged around the distinction between ethnographers’ use of oral history and the relatively new emergence of oral history as a distinct field. As an oral historian by job title and function with academic and public training in folklore, I wonder: Where do folklore and oral history intersect? How do they intersect? Are they now interrelated, independent or completely disconnected?

These aren’t new questions. Richard M. Dorson was asking them in 1971. Folklorists, anthropologists and other ethnographers have all written about their discipline’s specific evolution — and oral historians have done the same. To some degree, the discussions of what early oral history did and didn’t look like mirror historic discussions of what folklore did and didn’t look like: ivory towers and armchairs vs. 50-lb. audio recorders and a hike through the woods.

The Publore discussion was really kicked off by countering the claim that the discipline of History “invented” oral history, citing early uses of the term by ethnographers like Alan Lomax and collections developed during the Federal Writer’s Project (FWP). I would guess many people today, no matter the background, immediately think of the 1937-1939 FWP effort to document the stories of ex-slaves as an early version of formalized oral history. This effort, led by John Lomax (folklorist and ethnomusicologist), documented on paper about 2,300 narratives.

There is no question that similar work was being done before journalist/historian Allan Nevins formed the first modern oral history archives at Columbia University in 1948. The claim that Nevins was the “father-figure,” or formalized starting point, for the discipline of oral history leaves out a lot of historical context. In fact, Jerrold Hirsch has written about this in the Oral History Review article “Before Columbia: The FWP and American Oral History Research.” While this event was a milestone in the solidification of oral history as a specialized field of study, it was by no means the beginning. As a responding Publore post from Jeff Todd Titon correctly suggests, the difference between Nevins and many of the ethnographically-trained precursors and contemporaries was that he was focused on a “top-down” approach.

Does that mean that folks practicing and participating in the development of the discipline of oral history all focused on the big shots? I would argue, no. Although it is true many of the institutionalized oral history offices that followed Columbia did take this “top-down” approach until the late 1960s, Don Ritchie attributes the first wide-spread popular culture use of the term “oral history” to a New Yorker article in 1942. This piece profiled efforts by Joseph Gould (a.k.a. Professor Sea Gull) to collect “an oral history of our time” in which Gould claims to “put down the informal history of shirt-sleeved multitudes.”

It is also worth noting that Nevins was a journalist-turned-historian. Traditional academic historians, for the large part, had discredited oral history/oral testimony as a reliable source of history by the mid-19th century with the popularization of the German school of scientific history (Von Ranke’s source-based history). It was really journalists, ethnographers, folklorists, anthropologists and less traditional, academy-based historians who were developing the framework for oral history as it is known today.

In “The History of Oral History” from the Handbook of Oral History, Rebecca Sharpless attributes the early- to mid-20th century legitimization of oral history to the FWP, the published works of folklorists like B.A. Botkin, and WWII military historians like Colonel S.L.A. Marshall and Forrest C. Pogue. Honestly, there is so much information out there, I am going to quit trying to cite it all — in fact, Tim Lloyd just posted an essay to OHDA discussing the differences between folklore and oral history. Instead, I’ve started a point-by-point timeline of the two disciplines. I hope the OHA and AFS conference attendees will comment on the timeline, or on anything they hear or discuss regarding the oral history/folklore dynamic.

Timeline of Oral History and Folklore

1859 — New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley conducts a publicized interview with Brigham Young
(influencing a trend in newspaper interviews).
1870 — California publisher, Hubert Howe Bancroft documents living memories of early pioneers to California and
the American west.
1878 — Thomas Edison promotes the first phonograph.
1888 — American Folklore Society is founded.
1890s — US Bureau of Ethnology sends researchers to record Native American stories/songs on to wax
1928 — Archive of Folk Culture is created.
1935 — Works Progress Administration hires unemployed writers to document the lives of ordinary citizens.
1936 — John Lomax, first WPA/Federal Writer’s Program folklore editor, instigates the ex-slave narrative project,
which will later be published under direction of B.A. Botkin.
1942 — The New Yorker publishes an article about Joseph Gould’s “Oral History of Our Time.
1942 — The first commercial wire-recorder is marketed to the US military (estimated date).
1944 — World War II post-combat interviews are recorded just off the battlefield.
1948 — The first American-made tape recorders are launched (though not widely available until years later).
1948 — Columbia University Oral History Research Office is created.
1953 — The first US folklore PhD degree awarded to Warren Roberts at Indiana University.
1954 — The University of California at Berkeley begins the Regional Oral History Office.
1959 — The University of California Los Angeles’ Center for Oral History Research is institutionalized.
1960 — Harry S. Truman Library becomes the first presidential library with an oral history program.
1963 — The University of Pennsylvania awards its first PhD in folklore to Kenny Goldstein.
1967 — The Oral History Associationis founded.
1976 — The American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress is created.
1987 — The International Oral History Association is founded.

Get your comment posting frenzy on below!

Sarah Milligan has been the administrator for the Kentucky Oral History Commission since June 2007. She has a master’s degree in folk studies from Western Kentucky University’s Department of Folk Studies and Anthropology. She worked as a folklife specialist for the Kentucky Folklife Program  before joining the Commission. During her time with the KFP, she worked as the statewide community scholars’ coordinator, and she continues to find enjoyment in working with communities by developing oral history projects. As administrator for KOHC, Milligan assists with a statewide oral history preservation effort, as well as encourage new and exciting oral history documentation in Kentucky.

The Oral History Review, published by the Oral History Association, is the U.S. journal of record for the theory and practice of oral history. Its primary mission is to explore the nature and significance of oral history and advance understanding of the field among scholars, educators, practitioners, and the general public. Follow them on Twitter at @oralhistreview and like them on Facebook to preview the latest from the Review, learn about other oral history projects, connect with oral history centers across the world, and discover topics that you may have thought were even remotely connected to the study of oral history. Keep an eye out for upcoming posts on the OUPblog for addendum to past articles, interviews with scholars in oral history and related fields, and fieldnotes on conferences, workshops, etc.

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Recent Comments

  1. Cliff Kuhn

    Thanks, Susan. In my experience, there has always been a fruitful cross-fertilization between the two fields, however defined. Certainly folklorists have played and continue to play a central role in the Oral History Association’s activities and leadership. And I look forward to help continue the positive relationship between the two fields, and between the Oral History Association and the American Folklore Society, in the future.

    Cliff Kuhn
    Incoming Executive Director
    Oral History Association

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  3. Elaine Thatcher

    A helpful summary. Thanks. There’s a mistake in the timeline: 1888, the word “Folklore” is left out of “American Folklore Society is founded.”

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  6. Chloe Murphy

    Wonderful Piece

  7. Owen Hamilton

    Brilliant short article, I liked the communication lost device – control panel bit

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