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Oral history is a versatile research method that can be used in different ways and for different purposes. In this research paper we examine, first, the definition and origins of oral history and its relation to memory and processes of remembering; second, we offer a theoretical background to the study of oral data and a methodological exploration of oral history research; third, we provide practical information and advice on how to prepare for and conduct an interview. The research paper concludes with a brief discussion of recording equipment, ethical issues and details on the archivization, and dissemination of oral data.
- What Is Oral History?
- A History of Oral History
- Memory and Remembering
- Subjectivity, Intersubjectivity, and Composure
- Oral History in Practice: Preparing for the Interview
- Credibility and Reliability
- The Interviewee: Who Is Talking?
- The Interviewer: Who Is Asking?
- The Interview: What Is Said?
- Recording and Transcribing Interviews
- Ethics and Copyright
- Archiving and Disseminating Oral History
Attempting to define oral history, Donald Ritchie (2003) once said that oral history “collects memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews”. However, oral history is ‘too dynamic and creative a field’ to be entirely captured by a single definition (p. 19). Similarly, Bruno Bonomo (2013) identified two ways of defining oral history: on the one hand it refers to oral traditions, for example in non-Western societies and indigenous cultures where tradition is transmitted orally from one generation to another, but which are also used to share family stories; on the other hand, ‘oral history’ refers to a method of historical reconstruction of the past which is based on oral sources (Bonomo, 2013: pp. 13–14). These have made important contributions to our understanding of the nature and meaning of oral history accounts (Thomson, 2006: p. 51). It may thus take the form of eyewitness evidence about the past, but can also include myths, songs, and stories passed down over the years by word of mouth. Furthermore, while oral history is an exceptionable way of preserving the knowledge and understanding of older people, it can also be used to engage with younger generations. Hence it contributes to a better understanding of both the past and the present. Nor should we ignore the fact that oral history is a highly interdisciplinary research area which links to other areas of research, such as sociology, folklore studies and anthropology, although the relationship between the disciplines has varied in different parts of the world (Thomson, 2006: p. 51; Evans, 1972: p. 56). Finally, oral history interviews can be used for a variety of purposes including for academic research, publication in a radio or video documentary, in museum exhibitions or posted on the Internet (Ritchie, 2003: p. 19).
In short, oral history is a versatile research method that can be used in different ways and for different purposes. In this research paper we will examine the definition of oral data and the relation of oral history to memory and historiography, before moving to an historical, theoretical, and methodological exploration of oral history research.
What Is Oral History?
Historian Lynn Abrams (2010) describes oral history in terms of a ‘catch-all term’ which reflects, on the one hand, the process of conducting and recording interviews; on the other hand, it is the very product of that interview, and as such it is both a research methodology and the result of that research process (p. 2). Indeed, the process of interviewing cannot be disconnected from the outcome of the interview (p. 3), as oral data are not simply ‘produced’ during the interview: this happens in the context of a communicative event, which strongly determines what and how it is remembered (Bonomo, 2013: pp. 23, 25). Hence the oral history interview reflects a performance and an act of narration, where the interviewee constructs a sense of self through the telling of stories (Abrams, 2010: p. 35). However, oral history is not a monolog but a dialog, where data is produced through a ‘discursive weaving’ between two or more individuals (Bonomo, 2013: pp. 25–26), as we shall see.
A History of Oral History
Historians have, since ancient times, relied upon eyewitness accounts in the creation of historical data. During the Renaissance, however, humanist scholars began considering written documents in the reconstruction of the past (Bonomo, 2013: p. 19). With the advent – in the nineteenth-century – of Positivism and the development of a discipline of academic history, archives and documentary material became the primary sources of research, and oral evidence was marginalized (Thompson, 2000: pp. 25–81; Ritchie, 2003: pp. 19–21; Sharpless, 2006: pp. 19–20; Bonomo, 2013: p. 19). It was not until the 1940s that the modern practice of oral history developed. Ronald Grele (2006) states that the attitudes and traditions within which it did reflected the tension between those who saw oral history as an archival practice and those who envisioned it as social history, and these were geographically specific: in the United States, oral history originated in archival projects while the European introduction to oral history was through the work of social historians (p. 44). Consequently, historians in England led the way in documenting lives of ordinary people, as opposed to Americans who tended to focus on elites.
Oral history in the modern form of audio recordings has its origins in the work of Allan Nevins at the University of Columbia (Thomson, 1998: p. 581). Nevins began to record the memories of ‘persons significant in American life’ in 1948. He was the first to initiate a systematic and disciplined effort to record on tape, preserve, and make available for future research recollections deemed of historical significance. While working on a biography of President Grover Cleveland, he found that Cleveland’s associates left few of the kinds of personal records that biographers generally rely upon. Nevins thus came up with the idea of conducting interviews with participants in recent history to supplement the written record.
In contrast to Nevin’s ‘great men’ approach, George Ewart Evans (1972) – the pioneer of oral history in England – collected memories of life and work in Suffolk villages, where “the old survivors were walking books” (p. 57). These were published in Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay (1956). Alistair Thomson (2006) states that oral history was an essential source for the ‘history from below’ approach fostered by politically committed social historians in Britain, such as Evans, from the 1960s onward (p. 52). Paul Thompson, for example, was a social historian at the University of Essex who played a leading role in the creation of the British Oral History Society in the early 1970s and the subsequent development of an international oral history movement from the end of that decade.
Within this developing international movement, oral historians approached the collection, analysis, and dissemination of oral history in different ways. Graham Smith (2010) notes that in broad terms, while oral historians in Western Europe and North America have often focused on issues of identity and cultural difference, oral historians in Latin America and Eastern Europe have tended to pursue more overtly political projects. Ritchie (2003) states that worldwide political and social changes during the last few decades of the twentieth century confronted historians with the inadequacy of archival documentation. He argues, for example, that newly emerging nations in Asia and Africa found that the written documents reflected the views of former colonial masters, and used oral history to revive buried national identities (p. 23). Indeed, decolonization processes in the 1950s led to the development of an interest in African studies where oral history research and anthropology merged, as in the influential works of anthropologist and historian Jan Vansina (Abrams, 2010: pp. 25–26; Bonomo, 2013: p. 48). Similarly, when the Soviet Union dissolved, a wave of autobiographical works were published as Russian and European oral historians sought to reexamine and rewrite their history by collecting personal testimony suppressed under Communist regimes (Bonomo, 2013: p. 67). Last, in recent years Brazil and Argentina have also witnessed a boom in oral history projects, to record the experiences of victims of military dictatorship and state terrorism (Ritchie, 2003: p. 23; Bonomo, 2013: p. 68).
Despite these valuable contributions to the historical record, oral history has nevertheless come under criticism: the speaker’s personal knowledge has been held to be less reliable than written documents. Oral history is indeed reliant on memories, usually of older people, which are criticized for being sentimental, vague, inaccurate, and biased. Yet, as Elizabeth Tonkin (1992) argues, oral history is not either intrinsically more or less likely to be accurate than a written document: the latter are often no more than orality recorded (pp. 113–114). In addition, Alistair Thomson (2006) has demonstrated that oral historians have developed their own standards to assess the reliability of oral memory, for example, by learning from social psychology and anthropology how to determine the bias and fabulation of memory, the significance of retrospection, and the effects of the interviewer upon remembering (p. 54). Furthermore, from the late 1970s imaginative oral historians such as Luisa Passerini, Alessandro Portelli, and Michael Frisch have turned these criticisms on their head and argued that the so-called unreliability of memory was also its strength, and that the subjectivity of memory provided clues not only about the meanings of historical experience, but also about the relationships between past and present, between memory and personal identity, and between individual and collective memory (Thomson, 2006: p. 54).
This ‘rehabilitation’ of oral history continued in the 1980s, with the end of the ‘grand narratives’ as theorized by Jean- François Lyotard (1984), the revival of the narrative element in history writing, and the so-called linguistic turn (Bonomo, 2013: pp. 64–65). Connected to this is the fact that memory production in the 1980s became more focused on the analysis of collective traumatic events such as the Holocaust and on the survivor’s authority as a witness (Bonomo, 2013: p. 37), symbolized in Annette Wievorka’s definition of The Era of the Witness (1999), or what Thomson (2006) has defined a “biographical era” (p. 57).
Over the past two decades, finally, oral history has largely been accepted as a research methodology: it is practiced both in academia and in the public sphere, and is represented by a variety of associations and societies across the world. It has gained a particular value in processes of community building and reconstruction. As Lynn Abrams (2010) has justly observed, oral history “is one of the few ways by which those who have traditionally been silenced in History may be heard” (p. 24). Similarly, Alistair Thomson (1999) argues that oral history gives a voice to the voiceless, such as women, workers, ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples, and marginalized groups, and enables historians to investigate underresearched areas of history such as the family and private issues. Hence it is able to provide information about everyday life and give insights into the mentalities of what are sometimes termed ‘ordinary people’, offering data that simply cannot be drawn from more traditional sources (p. 291). Oral histories also eloquently make the case for the active agency of individuals whose lives have been lived within deeply constraining circumstances. In other words, oral history can open up new views of the past. For in an interview the voice of the narrator literally contends with that of the historian for control of the story. Recounting the experiences of everyday life and making sense of that experience, narrators turn history inside out, demanding to be understood as purposeful actors in the past, and talk about their lives in ways that do not easily fit into preexisting categories of analysis.
Memory and Remembering
There are several difficulties attributed to the use of oral data, due to the way in which people remember. Memory can, for example, be distorted by external constraints. It is also selective, as people often recall things that correspond with the image of themselves that they are trying to present. In his interviews with Australian First World War veterans, Alistair Thomson (1994) found that his respondents remembered events in such a way as would prove acceptable accounts of their war service to their present selves. When asked about their enlistment, for example, the veterans described reasons that were not untrue but which were angled to reflect the image they wanted to present (Thomson, 1990: pp. 27–31).
Memories are also subject to self-censorship, as is particularly evident in memories of Nazi Germany. People cannot remember events without benefit of hindsight as memory is embedded in present experience. Thus Michelle Mouton and Helena Pohlandt-McCormick (1999) argue that Germans do not suffer from collective amnesia, but from a collective revision of memory (p. 43). In order to deal with the horrors of war and the guilt associated with the genocide committed during the Nazi regime, they try to create an acceptable memory. Many of the German women interviewed by Mouton and Pohlandt-McCormick initially referred to the impossibility of acting against the Nazis, as this was a sanctioned way to remember the past (pp. 43–44). However, during the course of the interviews it became clear that several of the women had supported National Socialism at the time. The women seemed to contradict themselves, but this was not to be regarded as their trying to present misleading pictures of their pasts: they felt compelled to construct an interpretation of their past acceptable to the present climate. When using oral data the complexity of people’s memories must therefore be observed.
Another good example of the complexities of remembering is the death of Italian steel worker Luigi Trastulli, shot by police during an anti-North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) workers’ rally in 1949. In what is perhaps the most cited article in the literature of oral history, Alessandro Portelli (1991) brilliantly demonstrates why oral accounts of this incident routinely get the date, place, and reason for Trastulli’s death wrong. Narrators manipulated the facts surrounding this tragic incident to render it less senseless and more comprehensible to them. Although oral historians do attempt to get the story straight through careful background research and informed questioning, they are ultimately less concerned with the vagaries of individual memories than with the larger context within which individual acts of remembering occur, or with what might be termed social memory. As Portelli argues, “errors, inventions, and myths lead us through and beyond facts to their meanings” (p. 2).
Elizabeth Tonkin’s statement about people speaking in genres brings us to another characteristic of oral history. ‘Doing an interview’ is an oral genre, which conditions how people tell their story as they have a model of what is expected of them in their head. They therefore use a mode of storytelling they think is suitable in this context (Tonkin, 1992: pp. 50–65). People also use narrative genres as a way of structuring their accounts. In her study of British women’s lives during the Second World War, Penny Summerfield (1998) found that women adopted certain roles in which to present their war service. She showed how the women she interviewed about their experiences of the war principally adopted two narrative models: the stoic and the heroic (pp. 87–99, 284–285). In other words, some remembered their experiences as war heroes or as active participants in the shaping of events, with their narratives constructed to exemplify this, while others presented themselves as passive victims of the war. Seen in the context of a range of other sources, oral history can, then, reveal the complex ways in which women and men compose their narratives in order to reconcile ideals of femininity and masculinity with the reality of their own lives (Davies, 1992: p. 55).
Finally, what respondents do not say can be as important sources of information as what they do, and even when the facts they give us are wrong, the reasons why they do so can tell us something about the society at the time they are describing, and that of the present. Luisa Passerini (1987), for example, analyzed the silences and inconsistencies in Italian working-class memories of Benito Mussolini’s interwar Fascist regime, demonstrating how Fascism had infiltrated everyday life and the difficulties of remembering personal involvement in a Fascist regime. When using oral sources it is important to be aware that silences do not just mean something has been forgotten about. Françoise Zonabend (1984) studied personal memories in a Burgundian village in 1970s. She found that her interviewees did not discuss the Resistance during the Second World War with her. Their silence about the Resistance did not mean it was forgotten, though: it was regularly commemorated at elections. It shows, instead, how informants may not tell observers everything they know or think. The Resistance was a divisive issue in the village, which was not the image of unity that the villagers wanted to create (pp. 196–203).
Subjectivity, Intersubjectivity, and Composure
The fact that oral history builds on people’s memories of the past raises the problem of objectivity. According to James Fentress and Chris Wickham (1992), memories are subjective by nature, although they can contain objective facts (p. 7). However, the very subjectivity of oral history is also its advantage. In the words of Portelli (1991), oral sources “tell us not just what people did, but what they wanted to do, what they believed they were doing, what they now think they did.Subjectivity is as much the business of history as the more visible ‘facts’” (p. 50). We can use official records, for example, to tell us the date of a marriage or the birth of a child, but not how a bride felt on her wedding day or a mother on the birth of her child. Like any other source, oral history data simply need careful analysis. It is not the case that written documents are reliable and oral sources are not, but there are additional factors when analyzing oral data that need to be taken into account, such as the nature of memory and the relationship between interviewer and interviewee. If done so, oral data can provide an invaluable source of information to the historian.
Indeed, an important issue to bear in mind is the relationship between interviewer and interviewee. While the historian always engages in a relationship with source material, in oral sources they tell the story together. To quote Portelli (1997) again: “Oral history.refers [to] what the source [the narrator] and the historian [the interviewer] do together at the moment of their encounter in the interview” (p. 3). The historian can influence how and what someone remembers, people can say what they think the interviewer wants to hear and are influenced by the character of the interviewer, and the reverse is also true. People are not just living documents, and there is a special relationship between interviewer and interviewee. This is not necessarily a bad thing: a great advantage of a living source is that you can ask people questions, which you cannot ask documents.
Finally, the narrator often ‘performs’ his or her identity, and in doing so may engage in a dialogic process where his or her consciousness engages with existing discourses or cultural frameworks: “the self is unstable, performative and draws heavily upon culture” (Abrams, 2010: p. 59). In her aforementioned research on Britain during the Second World War, Penny Summerfield (1998) provided examples of how people draw on public versions of the past as these have been transmitted through a wider, cultural memory (films, photographs, etc.) when constructing their own personal accounts. Drawing on Graham Dawson’s concept of ‘composure’, i.e., the process of “creating accounts of experiences and achieving personal composure, or equilibrium, through constituting oneself as the subject of those stories”, she demonstrates how oral history helped her uncover and ‘expose’ legends for the ‘fabrications’ that they are (p. 17).
Oral History in Practice: Preparing for the Interview
Before starting an oral history project, it is important to consider costs for traveling; recording equipment and transcription services; potential funding possibilities; and research outputs. Interviewees can be found through local newspapers, residential homes, local history centers and archives, community projects and religious and political organizations (Smith, 2010: p. 22). Snowball sampling, where each respondent gives the name of another person to participate, is a tried and tested means of identifying potential interviewees. According to Katherine Field (2001) snowballing is a particularly appropriate method for finding elderly respondents because it helps secure the trust of interviewees through being ‘recommended’ to them by their friends (p. 103). However, some awareness of who might be missing from recommendations to interview is useful, as it is likely that snowball sampling will reproduce preexisting networks (Smith, 2010: p. 23).
There are four principal interviewing techniques. First of all, unstructured or in-depth interviewing allows the researcher to gain an understanding of the interviewee’s life history. It consists of open-ended questions which allow the interviewee to talk about his or her life in a free-form manner. The life-story approach, as Marie-Françoise Chanfrault-Duchet (1991) has argued, “makes it possible to go beyond the preconstituted discourses and ‘surface assertions’ collected through survey research. It highlights the complexity, the ambiguities, and even the contradictions of the relations between the subject and the ideological image of woman” (p. 89).
Second, semistructured interviewing combines organized questions with more open-ended questions. It allows for the collection of more specific information on a subject all the while giving the interviewee space to talk freely. Structured interviewing, on the other hand, makes use of a standard set of questions which are ordered in a specific manner, and is most useful when doing quantitative analysis. A focus group or witness seminar, finally, is a collective interviewing technique where a group of people is interviewed all at once. It is a highly suitable technique for gathering a large quantity of information, for example, when doing research on a particular geographical area or a city. It is also useful when investigating issues of collective memory or trauma. At the same time, though, it may pose problems when, for example, interviewees refuse to reveal certain information to one another.
Credibility and Reliability
As with all historical sources, researchers must exercise critical judgment when using interviews – just because someone says something is true does not mean it is true, however convincing they are. Similarly, being a witness to events does not mean the narrator understands the significance of the events they describe. Linda Shopes has therefore advised that the first step in assessing an interview is to consider the credibility of the interviewee and their account. The narrator’s relationship to the events under discussion, his or her personal stake in presenting a particular version of events, physical and mental state at the time of the events under discussion and of the interview, as well as the internal consistency of the account all figure into the narrator’s reliability. Comparing what the interviewee says both with other respondents and different types of evidence can help establish the accuracy of their account. Does it complement or supplement the other sources, or does it contradict them? If the latter, it is necessary to analyze why this difference occurred. Were interviewees differently situated in relationship to the events under discussion? Might they have different agendas, leading them to tell different versions of the same story? Could the written sources be biased or limited in a particular way? Might intervening events – for example, ideological shifts between the time of the events under discussion and the time of the interview, or subsequent popular cultural accounts of these events – have influenced later memories? Put simply, we need to ask: who is saying what, to whom, for what purpose, and under what circumstances?
The Interviewee: Who Is Talking?
Who a narrator is becomes a cognitive filter for their experiences. In Shopes’ words, “What a narrator says, as well as how the narrator says it, is related to his or her social identity (or identities)”. Identities are neither singular nor fixed and are defined by both the speaker’s relationship to the events under discussion and their temporal distance from them. Feminist historians have shown that women often articulate their life stories around major events in the family life cycle, such as dating events in relation to when their children were born. Women also tend toward “understatement, avoidance of the first person point of view, rare mention of personal accomplishments, and disguised statements of personal power” (Gwen Etter-Lewis cited in Sangster, 1998: p. 89). In contrast, men are more likely to connect their personal chronologies to public events like wars, elections, and strikes. Ethnicity is also influential. Scott Ellsworth (1982) used the phrase ‘segregation of memory’ to describe the varying ways blacks and whites remembered the 1921 race riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma (p. 98). Whites recalled either ‘very little at all’ about members of minority groups or that ‘we all got along’. In contrast, blacks offered a less positive and more complex account (pp. 104– 107).
The Interviewer: Who Is Asking?
While the interviewee is the central focus of the interview, it is the questions posed by the interviewer that shape the interview’s form and content. Smith (2010) recommends a combination of broad questions (i.e., ‘Tell me something about.’), precise enquiries (i.e., ‘Could you please tell me your date of birth?’), and questions that bring a topic into focus by asking who, what, when questions (p. 27). The interviewer’s influence reaches beyond their questioning, though. Linda Shopes explains that the social identities of both the narrator and interviewer are played out in the dynamic of the interview with narrators assessing what they should and should not say to the interviewer. For example, a grandparent being interviewed by a grandchild for a family history project may suppress less savory aspects of the past in an effort to shield the child, serve as a responsible role model, and preserve family myths. Consequently, the interviewer must be aware of what is happening in the interpersonal relationship during the interview situation (Yow, 1994: p. x).
The Interview: What Is Said?
As we have seen, oral history interviews are broad in scope and approach. Shopes reminds us that what is analytically important is the way narrators structure their accounts and the way they select and arrange the elements of what they are saying. As important as what is said is, again, what is not said, i.e., what a narrator misconstrues, ignores, or avoids. Silences can signify many things, though: it can be a simple misunderstanding, a discomfort with a difficult or taboo subject, but it may also reflect mistrust of the interviewer and a cognitive disconnection between interviewer and narrator.
The purposes and outputs of an interview also influence and shape the narrative. For example, community-based oral history projects, which seek to enhance feelings of local identity and pride, often sidestep more difficult and controversial aspects of a community’s history. What is said can also be shaped by the intended outcomes of the interview. Narrators whose interviews are intended for web publication, with a potential audience of millions, are perhaps more likely to exercise a greater degree of self-censorship than if their interviews were intended to be placed in an archive.
Finally, the circumstances of the interview also affect what is recalled. Generally, interviews for which both interviewer and interviewee have prepared themselves are likely to be fuller and more detailed accounts than more spontaneous exchanges. Similarly, physical comfort and adequate time help create the expansive mood and unhurried pace that enhances recall. Shopes suggests that the location of the interview subtly influences what a narrator talks about and how they talk about it. Interviews in a person’s office, for example, tend to be more formal, less intimate, with the narrator emphasizing public rather than private life. Likewise, an interview with more than one person simultaneously or the presence of a third person in the room where an interview is taking place can constrain a narrator, turning a private exchange into something more akin to a public performance.
Recording and Transcribing Interviews
A good example of how the environment shapes what is said during the interview is when video recording is used instead of audio recording. The advantage of video is that it allows the interviewer (and subsequent users of the recordings) to ‘hear’ more by seeing body language, facial expressions, and emotions. However, it may prove difficult to manage both interviewing and filming the interviewee, and it is advisable to have someone else handle the camera. As discussed above, the presence of a third person (and indeed the presence of the video camera itself) makes the interview a less private matter. In consequence the interviewee may feel uncomfortable and hold back information. Another side-effect of video interviews is that the narrator might become too attentive to his or her physical appearance or eloquence, to the detriment of the interview itself.
In addition to the choice between audio and video recorder, there are other decisions to be made in respect of recording equipment, with a large range of different types of equipment available in the market. For many researchers, the most convenient audio recorders will be ‘solid-state’ digital recorders: these usually have a Universal Serial Bus (USB) connection so that the recordings can be easily uploaded to a computer. It is advisable to buy an external microphone – for example a simple tie clip microphone – and headphone for the best sound quality. A unidirectional hand-held microphone or a rifle microphone can be a useful addition if the interview is taking place outdoors.
A good quality recording is important when making transcriptions of interviews, or, at the very least, a summary of the interview detailing the main themes that were discussed, the date, location, and duration of the interview, and some biographical information about the interviewee. A full transcription is a time-consuming matter. While transcription software programs may help, these never transcribe more than 80% of the recording, and it is advisable to hire a professional transcriptionist.
Ethics and Copyright
The interviewee is the copyright holder of the content – i.e., the words – of the interview, which cannot be used unless the interviewee grants his or her ‘informed consent’. This will usually be obtained through the interviewee signing a written consent form, although it can be obtained orally on the recording (which may be more appropriate if the interviewee has low literacy). A consent or clearance form also helps avoid issues with data protection. Whether obtained in writing or orally, the statement of consent will affirm that the interviewee consents to take part in the recording; that they permit you to use it in an agreed way or ways (which need to be specified), for example, as an online publication or to be deposited in an archive; and that they have had the opportunity to specify any restrictions they wish to make. While consent can be obtained after the interview the best time to acquire it is immediately at the end of the interview when both interviewer and interviewee are present to discuss the implications of the statement.
All oral history interviewing requires the researcher to consider a complex range of ethical issues requiring them to balance the need to respect the wishes of the informant whilst also maintaining professional integrity in writing the history which they believe does best justice to all the sources. Some of the most difficult ethics issues relate to oral history interviews involving children, detainees or medical patients, but there are legal and ethical limitations which are applicable to all oral history sources. Some interviewees may have personal issues, for example, a traumatic experience or a disabled child they may not want the researcher to write or talk about in public, or indeed to discuss at all. In such cases it is important to state in advance what kind of information is being collected and how it will be used, so as to enable potential interviewees to decide whether the research project is something they want to participate in.
Archiving and Disseminating Oral History
Oral history that is to be archived needs to comply with a number of requisites: quality and good audio; documentation (i.e., information about interviewee(s), recording dates/ venues, etc.); and the presence of signed consent forms. In our current, digital times, many archives also choose to digitize interviews and publish them online. This allows archives to save on transcription costs and make the oral data more easily accessible for researchers located elsewhere. Interviews are also used ever more frequently in museum exhibitions and on museums web sites. As such they manage to enliven the exhibition, increase public support and attract new users or visitors. They also allow visitors to imagine what it was like to live in the past. More importantly, they offer a variety of perspectives on events, thus challenging dominant narratives while giving voice to marginalized groups such as immigrants or women. However, this approach to oral data poses problems, not only in terms of ethics. Making a selection from an interview may not only lead to misinterpretations and wrong impressions, but there is also the risk of error if the digitized interviews are transcribed without the original participants in the interview being able to review the transcript (Ritchie, 2003: p. 176). Finally, there is a danger involved when visitors are exposed to interpretations of ambiguous events, such as genocide and dictatorial regimes, as not all visitors may have the capacity to critically interpret certain perspectives. It is important, then, that the oral data used reflect a wide array of positions and are backed up by historical information or commentary.
If oral history has been growing – as a research method – for several decades now, it was only since the 1980s that it has gained repute and an established position in historical research. Although criticism has not entirely been refuted, for example with regard to the subjective nature of oral history data, nowadays oral history is widely applied both in and outside academia. Researchers intending to partake oral history research should understand the dynamic nature of oral history and its relation to processes of remembering, be aware of (inter)subjective elements involved in interviewing, engage in supplementary and comparative research of written documents, and study the various interviewing techniques and ethical challenges.
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