There are many methodological issues associated with the tricky business of oral history. Foremost amongst those problems are the prejudices and reinvented narratives established over the intervening period of time that your subjects carry into the interview.
Basically, you’re not talking to the younger version of them.
That is not to say that oral history doesn’t have its merits. The British Library is in the middle of an excellent project (among many others) looking at the ‘Oral History of British Science’ <http://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Science> . In the course of my thesis I have conducted many interviews with some prominent (and not so prominent) scientists and politicians involved in the science and politics of climate change; with one participant expressing the hope that I could contribute to the ‘real’ story of the IPCC (particularly in the context of continuing controversy in the blogosphere). Clearly my job as a historian is to try and get beyond the re-hashed narratives that my subjects want to tell me, and to do this I had to conduct a significant amount of research in advance of the interview. Indeed pitting one interviewee against another is just one interesting way of snapping your subjects out of their “presentist” stories.
But much of this goes without saying. What I want to explore here is, what else you can get out of oral history –other than just an audio file and (eventually) a transcript! I was prompted to think about this a little more by a comment at the HPST Reading Group last night. Tom Lean, one of the BL’s Oral History of British Science interviewers, was recounting the interesting and often unique photos he has been provided with by his interview subjects. Scientists and engineers stood next their gadgets and gizmos and their planes, trains and automobiles. Now I haven’t been provided with any photos by my interview subjects, but I have been given a selection of papers that I otherwise wouldn’t have known existed, let alone been able to get my hands on. This has helped me overcome some of the issues of studying an institution younger the 30 years old (the ‘thirty year rule’ states that yearly Cabinet papers of a government will be released publicly thirty years after they were created: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirty_year_rule ). But what I want to argue here is that you can get even more than some extra documents –incredibly useful as they may be. You get to know your main protagonists in a way which compliments the archival record. For example I didn’t know, nor would I have found out, about various friendships that crossed borders and transcended disciplines. These extra personal details can lift your understanding of a character. After all there’s a reason we have a fantasy dinner party guest list.
So go on and enjoy yourself; send that letter or email to your central actor. In all likelihood they’ll be very happy to tell you their story.
Post by David Hirst