How is oral history different from other forms of research and scholarship?

It is important to say that oral history as done in the academy

  • Is not what people imagine Studs Terkel as having done
  • Is not StoryCorps — it is not just a matter of recording stories, and putting them on the radio
  • Is not just a matter of reproducing long quotations in a book

It is an interdisciplinary methodology with a unique approach to studying the past.

It takes as its essential subject matter the subjectivity of the interviewee and his or her understanding of the past.

It explores the link between the past and present, the connection between self and society, and the relationship of (auto)biography to history.

Our work is different from that of other scholars in (at least) three ways.

1. We work to create publicly accessible records.

The [US] Oral History Association defines oral history as “a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events.

It is, therefore, both an archival practice and a research technique.

As an archival practice it is a method of recording the memories of an informed narrator by a process of questions and answers, in an effort to investigate a previously neglected historical issue.

Oral history interviews are documented in either audio or video format, then transcribed, summarized or indexed – and then placed in a library or archive for use by other researchers.

Once placed on deposit in an archive, they become a documentary resource for subsequent historical analysis.

This makes our work different from that of other disciplines.

We are consciously creating a public record with our research.

2. Collaboration

Generally, except in very unusual circumstances, the people we work with have much control over the research record and its ultimate use.

Oral historians like to think of themselves as engaged in an especially intense level of collaboration with our research subjects.

The heart of the practice is best described by the phrase “shared authority,” a term popularized by oral historian Michael Frisch.

We share the authority with our narrators in at least three places.

The first is in the interview setting.

Oral history demands a particular kind of interviewing, one that is different from the kinds of interviews conducted by journalists, psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, and others.

Oral historians strive to conduct an interview that when archived will honor and accurately recount both the memories of the interviewee and the contribution of the trained and prepared interviewer.

Transcript

A second collaboration takes place after the interview.

The Principles and Best Practices guidelines of the OHA require us to fully inform narrators of their rights, and of the commitments we make to them. (Even oral historians at institutions that exclude oral history from IRB review use consent forms and deeds of gift.)

One of those commitments is to make the resulting records transcripts, recordings, etc, available to the interviewee for review and revision before any use – public, scholarly, or whatever – is made of them.

In my view, this is a significant protection that oral history offers to interviewees, tending to minimize the risks of research participation.

Interviewees have time to reflect and alter their contribution, if they elect to do so.

Many of us, myself included, continue to collaborate with interviewees all the way through the publication process.

Deposit

A third collaboration occurs over the issue of public accessibility, and concerns the question: Who can listen and when?

The answer with most oral histories is that no one can listen until the interviewee agrees.

Barring exceptional circumstances, oral history interviews are usually considered confidential between interviewer and interviewee until such a time as the interviewee determines that the interview contents – transcript, recording, or both — can be deposited in an archive.

That deposit is ordinarily governed by a deed of gift, a contract that establishes the rules for preservation and access in an archive.

Oral historians generally have their ideas about where they want the records to go, but that determination has to be worked out with the interviewee. Unusually this presents no problems.

But this always brings a 3rd party into the collaboration – the institution that will receive the records. Institutions have their own set of rules, legal obligations, contracts and problems.

There might be ways around this. Very recently Harvard professor of constitutional and international law Noah Feldman has suggested that perhaps oral historians should hold on to their recordings privately.

Another alternative is to give interviews to the public domain. The US Senate historical office does this, as do I.

Whichever route you elect to go, I strongly recommend that you use an attorney to prepare the documents necessary for publication and deposit.

3. Non confidential/Non-anonymous

A third way we are different is that we generally do not do confidential or anonymous interviews. Personal names are [virtually] always attached to oral history records. As the historian Linda Shopes, (then historian/program administrator at the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, now an independent consultant) acting as a spokesperson for the Oral History Association, has written,

“Requiring anonymity violates a fundamental principle of oral history.

For historians, anonymous sources lack credibility – knowing the identity of a narrator allows the historian to gauge that person’s relationship to the topic at hand and hence assess the perspective from which he speaks.

While OHA’s Evaluation Guidelines do allow interviewees to choose anonymity “under extreme circumstances,” when failure to do so could have adverse consequences, the operating assumption is for narrators to be identified and most, in fact, choose to be.

Typically, narrators are proud of having contributed their story to the permanent record and wish to be associated with it.”[1]

[1] Oral History Association, “Human Subjects and IRB Review,” http://www.oralhistory.org/do-oral-history/oral-history-and-irb-review/, accessed Feb. 5, 2012. Republished as Linda Shopes, “Human Subjects and IRB Review,” http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/08/human-subjects-and-irb-review/, accessed February 27, 2014.