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Oral History Sam Smith Geog 5161 28 February 2011.

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1 Oral History Sam Smith Geog 5161 28 February 2011

2 Oral History in Action  Baylor U. Institute of Oral History –  Ongoing Projects: –University History, Texas Economic History  Exhibition: Historic Waco Neighborhoods

3 Oral History in Action  U. of Northern CO –CO Oral History and Migratory Labor Project –  Oral History of Bracero Workers in CO, 1942-1964.  Oral History of 2006 ICE Workplace Raids

4 Defining Oral History  “Oral history refers both to a method of recording and preserving oral history, and to the product of that process” (Oral History Association, 2009)  “Oral history can be a powerful source of situated learning…it can facilitate enhanced understandings of space, place, region, landscape, and environment” (George and Stratford, 2010, 140)

5 Historical Background  Historians in 1930s and 1940s –WPA Slave Narratives, Interviews with “significant” Americans  Increasing attention from social historians in 1960s and 1970s –Focus on ordinary people.  Limited engagement with Geography: –Superficial engagement with place; undertheorization; lack of attention to mundane details (Andrews et al., 2006, 156)

6 Oral History in Geography?  “In comparison to the scope and volume of historical geography as a subdiscipline, however, the use of oral history is a relatively rare undertaking” (Andrews et al, 2006, 158)  Well, not exactly… –Historical geographies of geographical knowledge production (Matless, Oldfield, Swain, 2007) –Tracing place-embeddedness of migration decisions (Ni Laoire, 2007) –Nationalist activism among Welsh student groups (Jones and Fowler, 2007)

7 Strengths of Oral History for Geographical Research 1) Helps researchers understand place in historical and individual contexts.  “A picture of the past in people’s own words” (Robertson, 2006, 2)  “It provides a means to step back to the mix of past times and places as they are mediated through the words and memories of another person in the present” (George and Stratford, 2010, 141)

8 Strengths of Oral History for Geographical Research 2) Provides insights beyond what is recorded in archival materials.  Changing human and natural environments.  “Political commitment to opening up undocumented histories” (Riley and Harvey, 2007, 346) (Riley and Harvey, 2007, 346)

9 Strengths of Oral History for Geographical Research 3) Situating history across scales.  “…an attention to the local impact of ‘big’ histories, that perhaps might even be ‘anti- histories,’ stories that lie outside of, and might even conflict with, dominant narratives” (Andrews et al., 2006, 170)

10 Methods: Interviewing  “Oral history interviews seek an in-depth account of personal experience and reflections, with sufficient time allowed for the narrators to give their story the fullness they desire.”  “The content of oral history interviews is grounded in reflections on the past as opposed to commentary on purely contemporary events.”  Oral history interviews are historical documents that are preserved and made accessible to future researchers and members of the public.” (Oral History Association, 2009)

11 Methods: Interviewing  Open-ended interviews: Need for care in planning and scoping oral history projects.  Arrange storage of interview materials early in process.

12 Ethics  Informed consent is crucial!  Subjects retain ownership and copyright of their histories, and have right to specify how their interviews will be disseminated.  Respect narrators “equal authority” in interviews.

13 Ethics Some ethics statements:  US Oral History Assn. –  UK Oral History Society –  International Oral History Assn. –

14 Preparation  Conduct local background research. –Identify subjects and key themes.  Formally approach subjects. –Propose recording an oral history.  Preliminary meeting with subjects. –Unrecorded. –Build rapport, refine questions, extend research.  Agree in advance to length of interviews.

15 Interview Questions  Open-ended, but planned and structured.  Prepare an interview guide, outlining themes and potential prompts.  Multiple interviews are an asset: –Allow additional archival research and question-honing. –Allow respondents to more fully develop their memories.

16 Interview Questions  Introductory –Record important details, build rapport.  Common –Asked to multiple participants, address overall themes.  Subject-specific –Tailored to individual participants. (George and Sanford, 2010, 145)  “Interviewers and interviewees should mutually strive to record candid information of lasting value.” (Oral History Association, 2009)

17 Interview Conduct  Goal is not only transcription, but production of an oral documentary record. –Watch verbal prompting. –Specify non-verbal cues (distances, gestures).

18 Challenges of Oral History  Critiques of Oral History methods: –Simplistic to focus on “reclaiming” history. –How accurate are individuals’ memories? (Riley and Harvey, 2007)  Need for dialogue between oral history and traditional archival research.

19 Collection vs. Interpretation  Recording oral history is laudable, but it is not the central goal of geographical research.  Researchers must also analyze and interpret--yet balance researcher’s voice with those of informants.  Typical use of extensive quotations from interviews.

20 Space in Oral History?  Oral History is not inherently spatial in its approach.  Geographers must work to incorporate spatial perspectives in questions, and draw out spatial awareness from interviewees?  Techniques to aid this?

21 Additional Outlets for Oral History  Oral Histories as archival documents.  Compilations in special collections, regional archives. –Boulder Public Library:  1300 interviews related to Boulder County  –Colorado Voice Preserve  New project, started by Colorado State Library. 

22 Additional Outlets for Oral History  Use of recorded voices in historical presentation, exhibits, public history.  Authenticity engages audiences, removes narrator as intermediary, lets past speak for itself. (Butler, 2007)

23 Conclusions  “The potential for oral history is potentially vast” (Andrews et al., 2006, 171)  “…could potentially pave the way towards a rich source of data: knowledgeable, first-hand insights into the interrelated everyday pasts of people and places.” (Andrews et al., 2006, 172)  Considerable debate over how best to apply oral history to geography, and to link it to other, better-established methods.  This is only the beginning!

24 Bibliography Andrews, Gavin, Robin Kearns, Pia Kontos and Viv Wilson. 2006. ‘Their finest hour’: Older people, oral histories and the historical geographies of social life. Social and Cultural Geography 7(2): 153-178. Butler, Toby. Memoryscape: How audio walks can deepen our sense of place by integrating art, oral history, and cultural geography. Geography Compass 1: 350-72. Charlton, Thomas, Lois Myers, and Rebecca Sharpless, eds. 2006. Handbook of oral history. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press. George, Karen and Elaine Stratford. 2010. Oral history and human geography. In Qualitative research methods in human geography, ed. Iain Hay, 139-152. Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press. Jones, Rhys and Carwyn Fowler. 2007. National elites, national masses: Oral history and the (re)production of the Welsh nation. Social and Cultural Geography 8(3): 417-432. Matless, David, Jonathan Oldfield and Adam Swain. 2007. Encountering Soviet geography: Oral histories of British geographical studies of the USSR and Eastern Europe, 1945-1991. Social and Cultural Geography 8(3), 353-372

25 Bibliography Ni Laoire, Caitriona. 2007. To name or not to name: Reflections on the use of anonymity in an oral archive of migrant life narratives. Social and Cultural Geography 8(3): 373-390. Oral History Association. 2009. Principles and best practices. (accessed 28 February, 2011). Riley, Mark and David Harvey. 2007. Talking geography: on oral history and the practice of geography. Social and Cultural Geography 8(3): 345-351. Ritchie, Donald A. 2003. Doing oral history: A practical guide, 2 nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Robertson, Beth. 2006. Oral history handbook, 5 th ed. Adelaide: Oral History Association of Australia, South Australia Branch. Thompson, Paul. 2000. The voice of the past: Oral history, 3 rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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