Oral history can be a useful tool in a historian’s search for truth. But is oral history as trustworthy as one would hope?
Oral history has made great improvement since its beginnings as simply transcribed accounts of events, to audio recordings of interviews and accounts, and today with video technology. But with these advances, one thing has stayed the same: the stories are still being told by humans, and humans are fallible.
History Matters brings up the point that “Early interviewing projects at Columbia and elsewhere tended to focus on the lives of the “elite”–leaders in business, the professions, politics, and social life. But oral history’s scope widened in the 1960s and 1970s in response to both the social movements of the period and historians’ growing interest in the experiences of ‘nonelites.’” Technological advances have made it easier to document the lives of nonelites. But have these advances gotten us any closer to the truth?
Elizabeth Loftus has spent years studying the human memory and its flaws. She has discovered that our memories aren’t as concrete and infallible as we would hope. The words we use in the questions we ask can influence how a subject will not only answer, but how they will remember an event.
So what can be done to ensure accurate portrayals of events in the past? Questions for an interview must be carefully worded so we do not influence the answers, regardless of our own hypothesis. It’s also worth noting that as technology has improved, from simple, transcribed interviews, to audio recordings, to film, subjects may become increasingly self conscious. People have always wanted to protect their own interests, but when your face is going to be tied to your words, you’re going to be even more careful about what you say. You may say what you think the interviewer wants to hear.
Lastly, the question on transcription and editing come into play. As we continue to study the nonelites, we will run into subjects who are possibly not the most adept with our own language. The View From The Bottom Rail transcribes the freedpeople’s words, but it leaves them sounding ignorant, including spelling words like “can” and “kin.” I think this goes beyond a search for truth into what is a mockery of these people. But sometimes it’s not that obvious. Sometimes there are small grammatical errors and factual mistakes. How should we as the historian deal with those issues? If you correct them during the interview, they may become more closed to you because you are talking to them as if they are uneducated, or as if you think you know the event better than they do. If you say nothing but change their words later, you can be accused of falsifying documents, something no historian should ever get caught doing. If you add a small note that some items are wrong, you might risk losing future interviews.
I don’t really have a solution for this last problem. But I think it’s something we have to think about when we set out to document the elites and nonelites alike.