What Is(n’t) Oral History. Or, the Rise of the “Oral History of [Fill in the Blank].”

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Troy Reeves works as an Oral Historian for the UW-Madison Archives, which is a part of the UW-Madison Libraries. For over ten years,  Troy has been keeping an eye on where and how the term ‘oral history’ pops up on the internet. It turns out that not all of the claims meet his professional criteria for best-practices in recording, preserving and archiving personal stories. 

After arguing for the power and the value of Oral History in a previous Humanities Booyah article, he suggested it might be useful to address the common use of the term for those of us working in the public humanities. Troy’s love for pop-culture doesn’t mean he wants to see the work of Oral Historians go completely rogue, at least not entirely.

 


You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

-Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride (movie)

 

My former colleague in Idaho noted that she loved being a Modern U.S. Cultural Historian because it allowed her to watch Primetime TV without compunction. My interest in U.S. Popular Culture, which I call “Americana” when I feel compelled to gussy up my research a bit, started even before my interest in Oral History.

The collision of my interest in “Americana” and oral history came in 2003 while watching my then favorite TV show, “The Simpsons.” Homer’s mom, Mona, was caught after living for years in hiding. The news report of her capture includes flashback-photos.  In one, she is inside a small dining room in a run-down house interviewing a wrinkly old-timer. An audio recorder spins on the table, while the voice of newsman Kent Brockman explains that Mona passed some of her time working as an Oral Historian. It was like being handed a research project without leaving my living room!

So, while in Idaho and continuing now in Wisconsin, I have conducted a very unscientific research project: I set my google alert to search for the term ‘oral history.’ Each week I receive a list of links to webpages that have used that term. This ensures that things like “The Oral History of the Superbowl Shuffle” and “The Oral History of [the movie] Swingers” don’t escape my notice.

This study, it turns out, at least according to my research, shows that people are talking about oral history pretty often. In fact, it seems that people are really excited about the idea of oral history. Popular stories, like a Vanity Fair piece entitled, “Farewell to All That: An Oral History of the Bush White House,” have indicated to me that oral history is a very popular thing.

But is it really Oral History? And does it matter?

First, I might slow down to share the professional definition I teach and use when helping folks around Wisconsin on Oral History projects. Someone doing Oral History (which I’m setting off with a capital O and capital H) is not simply capturing stories. Oral Historians ask thoughtful questions of our ‘narrators,’ with the intention of recording, preservingcataloging, and making the entire interview available for people to use (researchers, journalists, historians, family members…) now and in the future. I went on a bit more about it in a past Humanities Booyah article, “What Good Oral History is All About.”

So does it matter that term ‘oral history,’ in essence, has been taken over by online journalists and bloggers? What harm comes from people thinking that oral history is not exactly what we professionals want them to think?

My Oral History colleagues can probably offer many better responses to why it matters. But since I have your attention for the rest of this post, I’ll offer my own: Popular mis-use of the term oral history cheapens, and trivializes, what Oral Historians do. These oral histories serve nostalgic impulses. And while I’m not necessarily opposed to nostalgia (I grow nostalgic thinking of the best Simpson’s episodes…), Oral History (again notice the capital letters) can and should do more.

In many of the stories popping up on my google alert, the interviewers ask a few questions of a few people. A small portion of the responses, selected at the writers’ discretion, are presented through an editorialized lens. Because these interviews are done with the goal of providing an insider account of a story, they are subjectively curated and necessarily shallow.

This is very different from Oral History, which is for those interested in depth. True Oral Historians are scrupulous, looking towards posterity and aiming for objectivity. Oral Historians are committed to accessible archiving so that people can see or hear the interview in its entirety, not just the excerpts featured in a publication.

Pop-culture “oral histories” are not a complete sham. They certainly can give us the opportunity to connect with people in a way that encourages empathy, insight, and greater understanding across expanses of time, place or circumstance. For those noble reasons, I can’t argue that the “Oral History of [Fill in the Blank]” is worth nothing.

Having said that, Oral Historians must counter the popular usage the best way we can: through our work. I have to believe, as a Real Oral Historian, that the value of Oral Histories done right will prevail.

So, while I’m getting close to a full-blown jeremiad against the perpetrators of “Oral History of [Fill in the Blank],” I’ll back down now. But only because I’m channeling a pop culture icon, Homer’s son, Bart. By that I mean, I’m saying to myself, “Don’t Have a Cow Man!”


 

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