Oral History

This week I focused on learning about oral history. I began by reading What is Oral History on the History Matters website. The article pointed out that an early problem with recording oral histories was the reliance on a person to write down what was being said. This form of recording could increase the chance of human error. “Thus, historians consider oral history as beginning with the work of Allan Nevins at Columbia University in the 1940s. Nevins was the first to initiate a systematic and disciplined effort to record on tape, preserve, and make available for future research recollections deemed of historical significance.” Other than a short attempt during the depression oral histories focused on prominent citizens, but that focus shifted in the 60s with the increased awareness of activism by ordinary people. “By recording the firsthand accounts of an enormous variety of narrators, oral history has, over the past half-century, helped democratize the historical record.” The author of the article said that the best oral histories have an extemporaneous feel. Two people talking about the past with one trying to remember the details.

However, there are other ways that human error can corrupt oral histories. People can easily misremember things. Misremembering is something to consider when talking to people about the past. I think this error makes getting the story from as many individuals as possible important. There are bound to be overlapping details, and those details could be the truth.

I watched the above TED talk by Elizabeth Loftus that pointed out the importance of wording questions. Words can be leading and cause false memories. The same concept was reinforced in Davidson and Lytle’s, View from the Bottom Rail. The authors went one step beyond false memory or misremembering by arguing that an interviewee’s perception of the interviewer could cause answers to be different.

Then I hopped around the internet and explored a variety of oral history projects. The first was on the Oral History review were I read about an interesting project taking place in Cleveland Listening to the City: Oral History and Place in the Digital Era. A person can use their phone to access oral histories while walking about the city. I also visited, Slave Narratives. This was an early project that didn’t focuse on sociaities elliet.  Spokane’s Pride a local project that is focused on Spokane’s LGBTQ community. Then the  Veteran’s History Project, and lastly I visited Sound Map of the British Isles. It was here that I heard Mr. Ablett talk about how his employer provided beer to the employees. The men could drink as much as they wanted. One of Mr. Ablett’s collogues once drank 21 pints of beer before breakfast. It’s at about the 2-minute mark.
What I have discovered by visiting these various projects is that I like being able to hear the interview even more than being able to read the transcript. There were a few videos, and that was fun, but it’s the audio that I most enjoy. Now that I understand a little bit more about leading questions, false memories, misremembering, and the dynamic between the people taking part in the process I try to listen even more carefully for what isn’t said.

3 thoughts on “Oral History”

  1. That’s a great point, that being able to listen to a recording is more enjoyable than reading a transcript. There’s a human-ness to speech that doesn’t always come through in text, isn’t there?
    And hey, nice embedded video!

  2. Great story about the guys who drank 21 pints before breakfast, that cracked me up. I too found the audio/video stories to be the most engaging from the projects we listened to. I feel it’s more human and maintains my interest longer. Some of the times you can really pick out the emotional parts that they speak about


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