Reimagining Oral History and its Role in Society
By Lewis Younie (@Lewis_Younie)
On 6th January, a mob invaded the United States Capitol building, the seat of their federal democracy. In response, historians informed the public about the deep roots which white supremacy had in motivating that insurrection. Over a thousand signed a letter, for example, calling for President Trump to resign due to his personal responsibility. Historians owe it to the public to fulfil this function – a healthy society needs historical knowledge, and the online democratisation of this process has been vital. We use our expertise to help the public understand complex issues relating to our collective past which allows us to have a constructive conversation about identified problems. However, it is increasingly clear that historians are often not seen as experts providing vital context, but rather as elites dictating to the public. It is easy to see why sections of the public believe this – historians puncture myths which people are emotionally invested in. The problem historians face is that our relationship with the public has faced trenchant attack – when Michael Gove famously stated that people ‘have had enough of experts’, he was not entirely wrong. The natural response is to argue more forcefully. However, people will rarely become more engaged if told they are less intelligent or knowledgeable about a subject.
A partial solution could be to engage the public more directly in the historical process through broadening the participation of historians in collecting oral histories. Although typically seen as the domain of social historians studying a specific group, it has the potential to increase the public’s willingness to engage with us in a constructive manner. Historians, if seen to be going to the public and asking to hear their experiences and create a record of their lives, will not be members of the ‘Academy’, but rather custodians of our collective past. Wider society needs to be engaged and oral histories are, according to Angela Bartie and Arthur McIvor, a ‘powerful form of public history’ which can fulfil this need. A poignant example is the Federal Writer’s Project (FWP), conducted by the United States government in the 1930s. Despite being marred by interviewer biases, it provided crucial data from formerly enslaved people. The University of Kentucky has recently developed a programme geared towards combining students, their university, and the wider community as stakeholders in ‘sustainable stewardship’ of oral histories. They train their students to engage the public with twin aims of engagement and good methodological practice. They argue that their model ‘engages students, communities, and archives in continual collaboration to enhance access to and discovery of extant archived interviews while simultaneously growing the oral history and archival holdings’. The models of the FWP and the University of Kentucky provide instruction on benefits, method and priorities of public engagement through oral history.
Drawing from these examples, expanding the provision of oral history courses for undergraduates could be beneficial, with the aim of demonstrating to students early in their careers the value of such work and training them to the highest methodological standards. Additionally, universities could establish connections with care homes in their local areas to allow these students to put their training into practice. These institutes provide a ready and eager selection of sources for young historians to engage with. Additionally, as has recently been shown with devastating clarity, the elderly or infirm members of our community are vulnerable. The generation which experienced the British Empire’s decolonisation and the birth of the welfare state are very elderly – now is the moment to capture their experiences for posterity. Oral histories also have the potential to alleviate the loneliness that affects such communities. From my personal experience before the pandemic, I found that engaging with a person to hear in their own words about their lived experience radically improved their outlook and sense of wellbeing. They have much to say but often lack the opportunity to speak – oral history can provide them the chance they deserve and give us access to the wealth of experience they possess.
Through oral history, we can demonstrate to the public that history is a collective process, not simply a preserve of elites dictating to the masses. It can be a collaborative project in which historians are custodians of the past while also fulfilling our obligation to our discipline and to society. To answer difficult questions about our history, the public need historians, but we, in turn, need public trust and engagement, which expansive programmes of oral history collection could make a reality.
 Jennifer Schuessler, ‘Hundreds of Historians Join Call for Trump’s Impeachment’, The New York Times, 11 January 2021, sec. Arts, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/11/arts/historians-impeachment.html.
 John Brioch, ‘If You Charge Facts with Bias, Historians Are Guilty’, Perspectives on History, 13 April 2020, https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/april-2020/if-you-charge-facts-with-bias-historians-are-guilty.
 Henry Mance, ‘Britain Has Had Enough of Experts, Says Gove’, 3 June 2016, https://www.ft.com/content/3be49734-29cb-11e6-83e4-abc22d5d108c.
 Angela Bartie and Arthur McIvor, ‘Oral History in Scotland’, The Scottish Historical Review 92, no. 234 (2013): 108.
 ‘The WPA and the Slave Narrative Collection’, Library of Congress, Washington, https://www.loc.gov/collections/slave-narratives-from-the-federal-writers-project-1936-to-1938/articles-and-essays/introduction-to-the-wpa-slave-narratives/wpa-and-the-slave-narrative-collection/.
 Janice W Fernheimer, Douglas A Boyd, Beth L Goldstein & Sarah Dorpinghaus (2018) Sustainable Stewardship: A Collaborative Model for Engaged Oral History Pedagogy, Community Partnership, and Archival Growth, The Oral History Review, 45:2, 322
 Ibid., 324
Image: An Evergreen Protective Association volunteer recording an oral history at Greater Rosemont History Day (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oral_history)
This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.