Oct. 28, 2006

Responding to Oral History

When I was younger, I once had the opportunity to be toured around a southwestern-Ontario courthouse by a judge who frequently held court there. Upon entering the empty library, which held the volumes documenting court proceedings in Ontario and Canada stretching deep in to the past, the judge had motioned for us to be silent.

“If you listen carefully,” he said in a low, mysterious voice, “you can almost hear the voices of past lawyers and judges speaking…”

Imagine being able to hear and to communicate with voices from the past! To interrogate and cross-examine historical voices speaking from within the context of the event or movement being studied would enable a vastly more complete and nuanced historical record! Since this is not the case though, historians are left with the option of examining different source documents or perhaps listening to recordings or interviews from the period being studied in order to discern what the voices from the past were saying; however, oral tradition offers the researcher a means of interacting, to a certain degree, with the past.

Oral history gives more information than a document because the researcher can hear emphasis, hesitation, and intonation in the speaker’s voice. Speakers tell their stories with a bias that comes out of their life experience. (Portelli, The Peculiarities of Oral History) The researcher or listener can agree or disagree with what is said, but in either case, a reaction makes that history more tangible.

What is it that makes history less dusty? A feeling of nostalgia might give greater significance to a part of history; intrigue, tangibility, or relevance can bring history to life though. As a visitor to museums, I learn the most from and get the most excited about exhibits that I can interact with and probe. These are the elements that make me ask questions to better understand the historical narrative. Oral history is one of these hooks that draw me in.

But does oral history always tell the correct or accepted narrative? Of course not, but it then becomes the responsibility of the historian or curator to put these stories into their context. The person hearing or reading an oral history should understand both the historical context of the events being described as well as the point of view and bias that the speaker is coming from. By contextualizing an oral history in both the past and present, the historian is creating an opportunity for the reader or listener to draw connections between the present and the past.

Public historians should also be aware of conclusions they want a reader or visitor walk away with. The tangible, such as an oral history, might be the highlight that allows somebody to recall the message that the historian was trying to create. In researching for a paper I was working on recently, I read an article (which I cannot reference – I didn’t write down the quote because it didn’t relate to my immediate research) in which the author stated: “what is kept in the mind is kept in mind.” The lessons that public historians convey lose their relevance if an exhibit has no tangible or remarkable element that will help the reader or visitor remember those lessons.