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What’s new in oral history?

Preparing a new edition of an oral history manual, a decade after the last appeared, highlighted dramatic changes that have swept through the field. Technological development made previous references to equipment sound quaint. The use of oral history for exhibits and heritage touring, for instance, leaped from cassettes and compact discs to QR codes and smartphone apps. As oral historians grew more comfortable with new equipment, they expanded into video and discovered the endless possibilities of posting interviews, transcripts, and recordings on the Internet. Having found a way to get oral history off the archival shelves and into the community, interviewers also had to consider the ethical and legal issues of exposing interviewees to worldwide scrutiny.

Over the last decade, the Internet left no excuses for parochialism. As the practice of oral history grew more international, a manual could neither address a single nation nor ignore the rest of the world. Wherever social, political, or economic turmoil has occurred, oral histories have recorded the change — because state archives tend to reflect the old regimes. War, terrorism, hurricanes, floods, fires, pandemics, and other natural and human-made disasters spurred interviews with those who endured trauma and tragedy, and required interviewers to adjust their approaches. Issues of empathy for those suffering emotional distress increasingly became part of the discourse among oral historians. At the same time, the use of interviewing grew more interdisciplinary, with historians examining the fieldwork techniques and needs of social scientists. Sociologists, anthropologists, and ethnographers have long employed interviewing, usually through participant observation. Many have gradually shifted from quantitative to qualitative analysis, raising questions about identifying their sources rather than rendering them anonymous, and bringing their methods closer to oral history protocols.

Evergreen Protective Association volunteer recording an oral history by Baltimore Heritage. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

New theoretical interests developed, particularly around memory studies. Oral historians became more concerned about not only what people remember, but also what they forget, and how they express these memories. Weighing the relationship between language and thought, and suggesting that that outward behavior reflects underlying signs, narrative theory has challenged the notion of objective history. It sees the past as recalled and recounted as simply a construction, shaped by the way it is told. Memory theories have dealt with the way suggestive questions can reshape memories, and the way recent experiences can block out memories of earlier ones. These theories suggest that people reconstruct memories of past experiences rather than mentally retrieve exact copies of them.

An increasingly litigious culture raised other concerns for oral historians. Lawsuits have alleged that some online interviews are defamatory. A court case with international implications arose when the United States supported British police efforts to subpoena closed interviews that might shed light on a murder case in Northern Ireland, exposing the vulnerability of oral history to judicial intervention. Although the courts treated closed interviews seriously and limited the amount of material to be opened, the case reminded oral historians that they could not promise absolute confidentiality when dealing with sensitive and possibly criminal issues.

It has been breathtaking to document the scope of change in oral history over the last two decades, and sobering to see how dated it made much of the past information and even some of the language. Looking back over the past decade also provided some reassurance about continuity. While it sometimes seems that everything about the practice of oral history has changed, the personal dynamics of conducting an interview have remained very much intact. Whether sitting down face-to-face or using some means of electronic communication, the human interaction of the interview has stayed the same. So have the basic steps: the interviewer’s need for prior research; for knowing how to operate the equipment; for crafting thoughtful, open-ended questions; for establishing rapport; for listening carefully and following up with further questions; and for doing everything possible to elicit candid and substantive responses.

I was glad to see so many of these new trends prominently displayed at the Oral History Association’s recent meeting in Madison, Wisconsin (8-12 October), where sessions focused on oral history “in motion.” Motion aptly describes the forward-looking nature of oral history, with its expanding methodology and embrace of the latest technology, as well as its eagerness to confront established narratives with alternative voices.

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