Monday, August 25, 2014

What is Oral History? Why Oral and Documentary History?

The oral tradition is perhaps the oldest form of "recorded" history - even if it was only recorded and passed down in the memories of those who listened and retold the stories. Yet paradoxically, we often consider oral history to be one of the newer methodologies for discovering historical knowledge. Although anthropologists and linguists have used similar techniques for tracing the past, modern, "professional" historians only began to embrace the use of organized oral histories during the interwar period (1919-1940), though earlier testimonials and written "interviews" certainly exist.

Simply, the ability to record using media of some kind somehow gave oral history interviews a level of veracity as original documents that they previously did not possess. Thus, there is an important symbiotic relationship between the technology of recording and the collection and probity of oral histories.

Perhaps the most famous early oral history collection in the United States was the ambitious WPA Slave Narratives project conducted during the 1930s. The folklorist and musicologist John Lomax was very influential in the techniques used in these interviews. He and his son Alan would end up recording a phenomenal amount of American music for the Library of Congress. Their recordings are valuable, but is there anything about them warning us to approach with caution? How important is context - in the interviewer and interviewee? In the place? In the time?

Later, during World War II, the United States Army conducted extensive interviews with soldiers about the experiences during the war - as it was going on. Of course, many of these same men, now entering their nineties, are being interviewed today. What differences might we encounter if we compared these two very different interviews, one having been recorded in 1943, and one seventy years later in 2013? What is the difference between history and memory?

At the heart of all successful oral history lies an expert interviewer who possesses an inquisitive mind and a keen ear. Perhaps the most famous interviewer of the twentieth century was radio journalist and author Studs Terkel. Scholars in the field often see his work as a benchmark of interviewing skill. Of course, in this instance the interviewer himself became famous. Can this affect the outcome?

The Oral History Association has developed extensive guidelines over the years to help guide us in creating an oral history program. We will be engaging many of the ideas stated in their Principles and Best Practices section.

We will also go beyond what the Oral History Association governs. Namely, putting our oral history interviews into the more visually tangible realm of documentary filmmaking. This will involve harnessing the democratization of filmmaking that has taken place in the last seven years and using it to our advantage in order to produce high production value recordings.

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