What is Oral History?
Recording people. People of any kind. They give us different perspectives and angles, and they are valuable witnesses of the same events. The book Hard Times by Studs Terkel is a milestone of this genre. I don’t think that “genre” is the right word to refer to oral history, but it seems like Studs Terkel’s book is the “father” of many books that contain the transcript of many interviews.
Oral history is fundamental. The results of these kinds of research are used in museums, documentaries, tv programmes and so on. Single people come to represent a full community or a population.
An oral historian must be many things. He or she must be a collector, an editor, a listener and a journalist. But what is the difference between an oral historian and a journalist? First of all, the oral historian doesn’t need to show anything to the reader. The oral historian has no judgement, s/he must be as invisible as possible.
Paul Thompson said that Oral History was the first kind of history. It has indeed a long tradition, but it has been recognized as a genre not so much time ago.
In 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. It was the first time human voice was recorded.
Pic by Drew Patrick Miller
Oral History makes us aware of the voices of hidden stories. Ordinary people, ethnic groups, working class communities have a little space in history. Oral history contributes hugely to a deeper knowledge of social history, and this is precisely what Studs Terkel did in Hard Times.
The oral historian Ron Grele defined the genre in 1996: it’s the interviewing of eye-witness participants in the events of the past, for the purpose of historical reconstruction.
Editing is an important part of oral history. Structuring stories, deciding what is relevant and what is not and so on, have a lot to do with the success of an oral history book. For example, Studs Terkel puts an awful story and a good one alternatively. It is the writer’s responsibility to make the reading interesting and enjoyable for the reader. Studs Terkel’s choice helps to make the reading lighter.
Studs Terkel was one of the leading experts of this genre. Arthur Miller wrote about his Hard Times:
HARD TIMES doesn’t render the time of the Depression or historicize about it – it is that time, its lingo, mood, its tragic and hilarious stories…
The oral historian must also be able to involve the speaker. He should make people feel comfortable, willing to talk. They have to trust him or her. Everything should work. The equipment should be perfectly functioning, and the talk should be natural, never forced. Also, the oral historian should write everything. The grammar mistakes that the interviewee can make contribute to give an idea of the character.
But how to convince people to talk about their past? It takes a very long practice. Professor Lichtenstein made us listen to some examples of oral history interviews, such as Craig Tylor’s interviews to Londoners, which is interestingly called “a work of documentary fiction”. Professor Lichtenstein talked about one of her projects, Older Women of the East End. These examples made me realise what a special kind of interaction you have to have with the interviewee.
Interviewing is not about having a simple conversation. It is more like a privileged conversation. Professor Lichtenstein told us that it is common that people who are interviewed experience breakdowns while talking. These are all things that can occur and that a good interviewer should be able to handle.
The last part of this post will be dedicated to the rules that a good oral historian should know. The first suggestion that Professor Lichtenstein gave us was to start small. Try to find the most interesting stories, but give yourself some realistic objectives.
Pic by Joao Silas
- Define aims and objectives of the research.
- Identify themes and focus on them.
- Figure out who should be interviewed and why.
- Find the interviewees (through advertising, research and approach to people individually).
- Define question approaches.
- Prepare some warm-up questions. “What did you have for breakfast?” or just talking about time would be just fine.
- Choose a quiet place for the interview.
- Be confident with your interviewee, with your equipment, with your interview in general.
- Make sure your equipment is working. For non professional interviews, a digital recording device or a phone should be fine.
- Get close to the interviewee.
- Make sure you write down full name, address and date of birth of the interviewee.
- Let people speak, but make sure you have some questions/formula to keep them on track.
Pic by Andrei Bocan
- Ask short and clear questions.
- Include open-ended questions (how…? why…?)
- Don’t interrupt.
- Use positive body language.
- Be relaxed and unhurried, so your interviewee can feel like that too.
- Don’t contradict.
- Don’t express your own opinion.
- Don’t hum or laugh to your interviewee’s answers.
- Show a physical comfort. Be reassuring.
- Silences are completely okay.
- Keep building your interview. If the interviewee says something interesting, let him/her finish, then go back to what they said. “Would you mind going back about…”
- Ask the interviewee to sign a permission form.
- Thank the interviewee!
- As soon as you finish, prepare a back up copy.
- Transcribe the whole interview, with all the “hum” and “like”.
- Write a one-page summary of the interview.
Pic by Jason Rosewell
About a breakdown
- Say something like “Do you want to stop for a while?” “Do you want to go on?“
- Say that you are not there to be a therapist, but that you understand that the experience can be painful. It can happen that you are the first person they tell some stories.
- Tell them to take their time.
- Give them a tissue.
- After the workshop, we have practised some interviewing in class. I interviewed Amanda, asking her about her first day of school. I was then interviewed by her about the same topic. The practical approach to this research made me figure out many other aspects of oral history.
- – First of all, being interviewed helps your memories to come up to your mind.
- – Then, when you get familiar with the fact that you are telling about your past to a complete stranger, it flows very naturally. You forget about the fact that there is a microphone between you and the interviewer or between you and the interviewee. You start feeling comfortable, even if
- – it is difficult to warm things up at the beginning.