“The genealogical equivalent of “Eyewitness News” is the oral history. And since genealogy is history, what could be better than the oral rendition of an eyewitness?” asked Craig Manson in a post on his blog Geneablogie titled The Reliability of Oral Histories Considered.
If you are writing about your past or your family’s past in a memoir or family history you have no doubt been advised to interview everyone who might be able to help recall details of bygone days. Use the tools of the oral historian.
Manson, however, suggests that you should do so with a good measure of skepticism. He advises, “…genealogists should take heed of what sophomore psych majors and first-year law students learn about eyewitnesses: they are notoriously unreliable.”
That’s true. Memory is a tricky thing that grows more unreliable as the witness’ distance from the events grows longer. What emerges from an interview may be questionable in regard to specific facts. Interview two people about the same events and you may well get two very different accounts of what happened. In one family history book we helped create we worked with four siblings – two brothers and two sisters. Their recollections were so different that we resorted to using all four as narrators and attaching bubbles with their names to their comments to indicate the shift in viewpoints.
Does that mean you should shy away from interviews because they may be unreliable? Absolutely not!
What is important is to understand the truth to be gained from oral histories. Studs Turkel, referring to the people he interviewed for his book on the Great Depression, Hard Times, said, “In their rememberings are their truths.”
The oral historian is not only trying to create a factual record of events which can often be better done using documentary records, but also to recreate a time and place. That’s where oral history excels.
The Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interviewing Guide explains what interviewing can do that document based research cannot: “Whenever possible, ask the tradition-bearer you are interviewing for stories and anecdotes about the topic you are interested in. Stories are important sources of information— they encapsulate attitudes and beliefs, wisdom and knowledge that lie at the heart of a person’s identity and experience. Remember that the stories and memories you collect are valuable not necessarily because they represent historical facts, but because they embody human truths — a particular way of looking at the world...The stories people tell, and the cultural traditions they preserve, speak volumes about what they value and how they bring meaning to their lives and to the lives of those around them.”
When trying to reconstruct the past both documentary research and oral history have important places, but one must understand the kind of information each can provide.