oral history interviews are often quite simply good stories. Like literature, their specificity, their deeply personal, often emotionally resonant accounts of individual experience draw listeners—or readers—in, creating interest and sympathy. Edited carefully, they can open the listener to a life very different from his or her own in a non-threatening way. Contextualized thoughtfully, they can help a reader understand personal experience as something deeply social.
As with any source, historians must exercise critical judgment when using interviews—just because someone says something is true, however colorfully or convincingly they say it, doesn’t mean it is true. Just because someone “was there” doesn’t mean they fully understand “what happened.”
The veracity of what is said in an interview can be gauged by comparing it both with other interviews on the same subject and with related documentary evidence.In fact, inconsistencies and conflicts among individual interviews and between interviews and other evidence point to the inherently subjective nature of oral history. Oral history is not simply another source, to be evaluated unproblematicallylike any other historical source.
An interview is inevitably an act of memory, and while individual memories can be more or less accurate, complete, or truthful, in fact interviews routinely include inaccurate and imprecise information, if not outright falsehoods. Narrators frequently get names and dates wrong, conflate disparate events into a single event, recount stories of questionable truthfulness. Although oral historians do attempt to get the story straight through careful background research and informed questioning, they are ultimately less concerned with the vagaries of individual memories than with the larger context within which individual acts of remembering occur, or with what might be termed social memory.
What is needed then is an understanding of oral history not so much as an exercise in fact finding but as an interpretive event, as the narrator compresses years of living into a few hours of talk, selecting, consciously and unconsciously, what to say and how to say it.
It is not difficult to understand how, in interview after interview, oral history opens up new views of the past. For in an interview, the voice of the narrator literally contends with that of the historian for control of the story. Recounting the experiences of everyday life and making sense of that experience, narrators turn history inside out, demanding to be understood as purposeful actors in the past, talking about their lives is ways that do not easily fit into preexisting categories of analysis.
For the historian, oral history interviews are valuable as sources of new knowledge about the past and as new interpretive perspectives on it. Interviews have especially enriched the work of a generation of social historians, providing information about everyday life and insights into the mentalities of what are sometimes termed “ordinary people” that are simply unavailable from more traditional sources. Oral histories also eloquently make the case for the active agency of individuals whose lives have been lived within deeply constraining circumstances.
By recording the firsthand accounts of an enormous variety of narrators, oral history has, over the past half-century, helped democratize the historical record.
“Oral History” is a maddeningly imprecise term: it is used to refer to formal, rehearsed accounts of the past presented by culturally sanctioned tradition-bearers; to informal conversations about “the old days” among family members, neighbors, or coworkers; to printed compilations of stories told about past times and present experiences; and to recorded interviews with individuals deemed to have an important story to tell.
in order to contextualise oral histories, we also need to survey the dominant ideologies shaping women’s worlds; listening to women’s words, in turn, will help us to see how women understood, negotiated and sometimes challenged these dominant ideals (p. 10).
We need to avoid the tendency, still evident in historical works, of treating oral history only as a panacea designed to fill in the blanks in women’s or traditional history, providing ‘more’ history, compensating where we have no other sources, or ‘better’ history, a ‘purer’ version of the past coming, unadulterated, from the very people who experienced it (p. 7).
Rather than seeing oral histories as biased unreliable; it helps to focus more attention on understanding the construction of historical memory. Asking why and how [men/]women explain, rationalize and make sense of their past offers insights into the contexts with which they lived- the perceived choices they faced, the complexity of relationship between individual understandings and ideas and culture (p. 6).
The oral sources used in this essay are not always fully reliable in point of fact. Rather than being weakness, this is however, their strength: errors, inventions, and myths lead us through and beyond facts to their meanings. ….They allow us to recognize the interests of the tellers, and the dreams and desires beneath them (p. 2).
Rather than replacing previous truths with alternative ones, however, oral history has made us uncomfortably aware of the elusive quality of historical truth itself. Yet an aspiration toward “reality,” “fact,” and “truth” is essential to our work: though we know that certainty is bound to escape us, the search provides focus, shape, and purpose to everything we do (p. viii-ix).
Ever since the Federal Writers’ Project interviews with former slaves in the 1930’s, oral history has been about the fact that there’s more to history than presidents and generals, and there’s more to culture than the literary canon. Indeed, one of the reasons why oral history has been sometimes less than welcome in some circles is that is has disarranged many accepted truths. The history of slavery had to be rewritten once the ex-slaves testimony was finally taken seriously (p. viii).
Oral history rose to prominence in a particular context, becoming a mass practice in the climate of the 1960’s. The rhetoric used to explain its value has often been framed in terms of “uncovering unknown stories” or “giving voice to the unheard, the secret”, making it, in effect, a form of expose or evidence where no other is available (p. viii).
Oral history … is at heart a deeply social practice connecting past and present and, at times, connecting narrative to action (p. viii).
Oral history struggles with concerns of primacy of written testimony over oral testimony. … This ignores the problem of accuracy faced by historians who use written testimony. … The usefulness of any source depend upon the information one is looking for, or the questions one seeks to answer (p. 41).