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My Adventures in blogging, digital and Public History

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Bringing History to Life: The Attraction of Oral Histories

Why do we do oral history? Essentially I think it gives us that touchstone to the past. Many people look at oral history as ‘ the real deal’, the idea that if the telling of history is coming from a living, breathing source it must be valid or true. This interpretation is problematic in a few respects. First, memory is faulty; people often misinterpret what they see and hear and believe that interpretation as valid fact. Second, time and experience can taint or distort memory. A person’s versions of an event can change over time based on what they have seen, read or experienced in their life. Does this mean then that oral histories are not valid as a source or that they should be considered the ‘benchwarmer’ on a team that stars written history? How do these interpretations make good history if both the validity of the source and information are called into question?

In keeping with the sports theme, I’ll use Alan MacEachern’s analogy; oral history is like the colour commentary and written history is the play-by- play. The oral history gives you the flavour and the depth that a written text record simply cannot. Sports colour commentary is full of subjective opinion, it’s often over-the-top and sometimes totally off base - but where would we be without the Harry Neales and John Maddens of the world? Sports commentary would be just be a bland and monotonous appraisal of the action. The spice which engages and holds an audience’s attention through anecdotes, humour and controversy is a necessary part of the sports media just as it is a key ingredient in engaging history.

Portelli in “The Peculiarities of Oral History” confirms that it is indeed the idiosyncracies and originality in oral histories which make them a valuable part of historical research.[1] Historians are trained to be critical and analytical and thus the subjectivity in an oral history should be not be considered problematic in using the interview as source material. Fritsch supports this idea in the introduction of “A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History”, saying that oral history is evidence of memory, an information source to be confirmed by scholarship.[2]

Public Historians also have the added impetus to bring history to a wider audience and oral history is often engaging for a large segment of the public. Oral histories can often give a voice to an individual or group that has been marginalised and ensure that their histories are heard. This inclusiveness validates oral histories as a democratising force within historical research.

Portelli also discusses the need for oral histories to remain oral. By transcribing them and turning them into a visual representation, much of their power is lost.[3] He cites things such as intonation, volume and dialect which are all lost once oral speech has been transcribed. The passion of the story is lost if the person listening to the story cannot hear the ‘real’ voice of the narrator. The voice can show passion, excitement , sadness; overall, a personal involvement in the story which makes history more attractive to people. The public wants to feel like there is a link to the past and oral histories have a way of doing that through anecdote and emotion. Some would ask why this-keeping an oral history in the oral state- is important? The information is still accessible and the words have not changed. I would say that oral history represents that intangible that you feel when you see or hear the real thing. Perhaps it is not unlike the feeling you have when the colour commentator describes the winning goal or a bone-crunching tackle; maybe it brings you just a little closer to the action.


[1] Alessandro Portelli. “The Peculiarities of Oral History,” History Workshop Journal 12 (Autumn 1981), pp.96-107. [DR]

[2]Michael Frisch, “Introduction” and “Memory, History, and Cultural Authority,” A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (New York: SUNY Press, 1990), pp.xv-xxiv and 1-28.

[3] Portelli. “The Peculiarities of Oral History”

2 Comments:

Blogger Alan MacEachern said...

Wait a second! I used the colour / play-by-play analogy to question if that's how oral history is used, & whether that's appropriate. I wasn't defending that it be used like that.

8:38 AM  
Blogger Kevin Marshall said...

"This interpretation is problematic in a few respects. First, memory is faulty; people often misinterpret what they see and hear and believe that interpretation as valid fact. Second, time and experience can taint or distort memory. A person’s versions of an event can change over time based on what they have seen, read or experienced in their life."

Don't these things also apply to analysis from historians? Is it narcissistic to suggest that we are not also subject to the same misinterpretation, the same taint and distortion given time and experience? If so, how do we even know what the "truth" is, let alone define what is "distorted"?

11:01 AM  

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