The Tangles of Oral History

T: On the—you know, pain scale—is it one to ten?

D: Yeah

T: What level of pain do you need to experience before you go to the hospital?

D: 9; I don’t like to be inconvenienced; if I can fight through it then I will.

That was my best question when we were paired up in class a few weeks ago to conduct micro-interviews as part of our lesson on oral history. It was also the one question I ad-libbed.

We were supposed to ask about public health issues and I honestly blanked when I composed my five questions. I couldn’t think about what kinds of questions would be universal enough to get a response from each informant yet narrow enough to shed some light on the topic at hand. I didn’t know how personal to go. I tried to go vague (“What do you see, hear, and feel in a hospital? What are your associations with hospitals?”) or look to the past (“What do you remember about getting sick in your childhood? What was that experience like?”) to get around asking a friend and classmate about his health. It sort of worked. But I think I learned most about Derek from my spontaneous question about his tolerance of pain.

Of course, I should have known better. We read The Oral History Manual by Barbara W. Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan before class, and if I had taken some more time to craft my questions based on the Manual‘s guidance, I’m sure I would have come away with a better interview.

By The Oral History Manual‘s standards, however, none of the above constitutes oral history. The defining feature of oral history for Sommer and Quinlan is accessibility. Until my four-and-a-half-minute audio file and the rough transcript I recorded are housed in a repository of some sort, it basically doesn’t count. At first I was resistant to the limited definition of “oral history” that the Manual provides. Why can’t a recording of elderly relatives sitting around the Thanksgiving table count as oral history? Why keep a physical recording when the internet seems infinite and eternal?*

But I have come around to the authors’ point of view. I think they are using “oral history” as an analogue to “archive.” Recordings are just another text, but without the framework of a collection of them, in a safe place with provisions for access by interested persons, the text is largely without meaning.

Common standards and practices are key to multiple archives and oral history projects being used together. Perhaps it is this need for interchangeable parts (common metadata terminology, similar formats, etc.) that drives the professionalization of the oral history field.

However, while this somewhat anarchic approach may invalidate it (in many oral historians’ minds at least) as oral history, it side-steps some of the challenges that come with conventional oral history. In “When Subjects Don’t Come Out,” Sherrie Tucker discusses a frustrating scenario in which ethical frameworks of the profession got in the way of truth. In seven pages of hypothetical, Tucker lays out the situation: she conducted oral histories with hundreds of big-band musicians (all of whom were women) and while she witnessed and was told (off the record) proof that these all-female spaces provided haven for exploration of same-sex romance, not one informant openly presented themselves as a lesbian to her. Instead she faced all kinds of preemptive actions: disclaimers assuring her of informants heterosexuality or conditions that the conversation stay away from “personal” matters.

While Tucker finds a way through the dilemma (essentially writing an essay on the dilemma that is separate from her writing on the band-members), there is still a bit of a snarl in the Gordian ethical quandary. While her informants are kept anonymous in this essay and are only referred to as a bloc, rather than individuals, Tucker’s revelations tiptoe over a line. I believe she is right to do so and that her example is informative for people who may find themselves in a similar situation, but she still transgresses the conventions that she set up for her oral history project.

Contrast Tucker’s experience to a StoryCorps format: in the Airstream trailer that serves as a studio for the storytelling, there is no outsider, prying in one’s personal life. Yet though the interviewer and informant likely know intimate details about each others’ lives, they are unlikely to push beyond the saccharine and surface-level. While they may not find themselves in a quandary of Tucker’s dimension, they will also not approach the depth of one of her interviews, let alone the work of hundreds of interviews.

StoryCorps shares one danger with conventional oral history. As Leon Fink found when he worked on an oral labor history of Cooleemee, North Carolina, “community” history projects don’t necessarily feature the voices of everyone in the community but can appeal to small cliques in dangerous ways. In StoryCorps, there is over-representation of folks with heart-warming stories of overcoming trauma and adversity; in Cooleemee, the most enthusiastic heritage workers wanted to preserve a heritage that was exclusionary. Fink ultimately felt that he had to write the history of heritage projects in Cooleemee without oral history recordings he had made because his informants withdrew their support for his project based on his interpretation.

 [Video from the Cooleemee Historical Association, the work of which Leon Fink writes about above]

Oral history’s strengths come from the spontaneity of an improvised question, from the reading of body language, and the inherent intimacy and primacy of an interview. Yet as a process it brings with it many discomforts (in comparison with textual analysis in a library or archive) and challenges (such as how to make audio or video accessible and ethical dilemmas). I am sure I will do oral history in the near future, but it is going to take some practice before I’m any good at it.


*The internet is neither infinite or eternal, by the way. I know that.

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