What is oral history?

I tape, therefore they are.

~ Stud Terkel

Between Art Stories and coordinating the start of an oral history program at CalArts, where I am a librarian, I have been having a lot of conversations with experienced oral historians, reading as much as I can get my hands on, and simply thinking a lot about oral history. I also find myself in a lot of conversations now explaining (or rather, trying to explain) what oral history is. I have a bachelor’s degree and I initially felt like I had a pretty solid understanding of oral history and would easily be able to define it for others. But then I found myself fumbling a lot and giving these vague answers like “well, it’s interviewing people about their lives - but maybe in a particular context…asking people to share experiences...”, to which the other person might say, “like a magazine Interview?” Well, no.... And then I found myself telling people what oral history wasn’t, which isn’t always helpful. I finally started feeling like Justice Stewart Potter trying to define porn: I know it when I see it. Or rather, I know it when I hear it.

Like the good librarian and researcher I am, I hit the books, so to speak, in search of the perfect definition: oral history = x. Then I can just say to people, “oral history = x.” But the more definitions I read the more muddy the definition was for me.

For example, here is the definition of oral history from the Oral History Association’s website:

Oral history is a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events. Oral history is both the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word, and one of the most modern, initiated with tape recorders in the 1940s and now using 21st-century digital technologies.

It’s all crystal clear now, right? (All due respect to OHA)

These are the kinds of definition I found a lot; those written by and for historians, or explanations that made no sense. I also found that many definitions weren’t definitions at at all and simply statements on why oral history is important or included information on how to use oral histories in research. I became used to reading statements like , “...It can be used to change the focus of history…”

None of this is helped by the fact that I have found that a lot of people really have their own ideas about what oral history is and how it should be carried out. One narrator I know of believes that the job of the interviewer is to simply hit record and let him talk about anything he wants for as long as he wants. Interviewer? Questions? Who needs ‘em.

Then I picked up Recording Oral History: A Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences by Valerie Raleigh Yow and she addressed this problem head on and in a way that was both surprising and incredibly helpful.

The question, What is oral history? has stymied nearly all of us at one point or another. Oral historians have probably devoted more energy to definitional issues and problems of application of this term than other disciplines. I’ll venture a working definition: Oral history is the recording of  personal testimony delivered in oral form with purposes beyond the recording itself.

By simply stating that it was a problem other oral historians, and really the discipline itself, have grappled with was a relief to me. Now I could stop looking for the perfect definition and move on with my study of oral history and work on preparing for interviewing!

In this process of defining oral history I find that it’s less important to be able to bang out the perfect definition and maybe more important to understand the long game of any given project; different oral history projects have different objectives. Some oral history projects are looking for people to discuss a specific slice of your life or experience. Examples of this may include and oral histories of Hurricane Katrina survivors, farm workers in the 1960s, and children of divorced parents. Other projects, like mine here, are getting life stories. This includes looking back on your day to day life as a child and into adulthood, the experiences, people, and ideas that shaped who you are. Because we are the sum or our parts, yes?

While preparing my interview guide for this project I met with Teresa Barnett, Head of the Oral History Program at UCLA (a person who has helped me tremendously with this project, by the way). She used the words “unstructured” and “slow” to refer to an oral history interview. The interview is generally guided by a rough outline of topics to cover, rather than a list of questions - thus, “unstructured.” “Slow” because our job as an interviewer is to let a narrator’s story unfold at its own pace.

After that meeting the idea of interviews being “slow” stuck with me. Maybe it’s because of the the current “slow movement”. In addition to slow food you can also find manifestos and information on slow design, slow cities, slow books, slow school, and even slow money (I’ve been part of that movement my whole life). Want to adopt a slow lifestyle? Check out The World Institute of Slowness. Really, I’m not joking.

Is “slow” a fad? Maybe. It’s maybe even annoying sometimes. Things that used to be ordinary or things and activities that are just part of life - coffee, jam, a dress, homes, travel, school....the list is endless...is now precious. Very, very precious. You may have already discovered this as you stood in line for 20 minute for a cup of coffee with only one person ahead of you. But the idea is that you stop and savor the process of making it, interacting with it, learning about it, consuming it.

Despite the fact that I find it annoying, mostly because I’m at my core an impatient person and chase the clock like my life depends on it sometimes, I have to say that I like that people are taking the time to say “hey, things are moving too damn fast. Can we all just slow down a little bit?”

I also think that the process of recording oral histories fits quite well to this idea. It is a slow process and it’s nice. During my first couple of interviews it was nice to know we didn’t have to race to the end. We’d given ourselves an hour and we’d collect what we could knowing that there would be more. We could explore fun stories and recollections. The narrators stories could unfold slowly. So maybe that is the perfect definition of oral history - a slow interview.