Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Fast Forward: Oral History in the 21st Century by Donald Ritchie

These are my notes from Donald Ritchie’s presentation, “Fast Forward: Oral History in the 21st Century” on November 12, 2009, at the “Oral History for the 21st Century” Symposium in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. This conference is sponsored by the Oklahoma Department of Libraries, Oklahoma History Center, Oklahoma Historical Records Advisory Board, Oklahoma Humanities Council, Oklahoma Museums Association, and Oklahoma Oral History Research Program at Oklahoma State University. It is funded, in part, by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. MY THOUGHTS AND COMMENTS ARE IN ALL CAPS.

Donald A. Ritchie is the Historian of the United States Senate. See the WikiPedia entry for him for more background.

Oral history is as old Thucydides, as new as the latest digital recorder
– oral history is all about interviewing people who tell us what they saw
– oral histories pre-date the tape recorder
– interrogators during the Spanish Inquisition
– records of US revolutionary war soldiers recorded with notaries following the war
– interviews with former slaves, conducted by WPA workers during the Great Depression

Oral History become a term in the 1940s, article about Joseph Gould in the New Yorker, “going to interview the short sleeved multitude”
– turns out he never interviewed anyone
– lable “oral history” stuck

Oral History Research Office established by Professor of History Alan Nevins at Columbia University

Going to talk about background of oral history, technological roots, current impetuses for oral history

Alan Nevins
– started as a journalist
– also someone who never missed an archives or library
– loved documents
– often looked for recent Master’s theses at libraries
– realized in the 1940s because people could pick up the phone and fly across the country, people would not keep the kind of detailed diaries people had made

Colleagues at Columbia Univ looked down on this
book “The Modern Researcher” by Barzoon and Graff
– transcription / written word seen as supreme
– oral history seen as biased, unreliable, more sociology
– sociologists had been using oral interviews for sociological research

Profession influenced by Leopold Von Rocka (sp?)
– said eyewitness accounts were best
– he was a medieval historian

1950s: Univ of CA at Los Angeles and Berkeley opened oral history departments
– first US projects were top down interviews
– Nevins: interviewed lots of politicians and business leaders, focused on politics and economics
– European historians were aligned more with the left, focused on including those who had been traditionally excluded (bottom up approach)

1970s in the US this “bottom up” approach in the US
– Studs Turkels books were big influence: Hard Times, Working, others
– made the method much more publicly recognizable
– he started as WPA writer and radio personality
– in 1950s he was about to become a Chicago TV personality, but he was blacklisted from TV because of his political views
– since he did not go into TV, he was able to do more long, in-depth radio interviews that wouldn’t have worked on TV
– his work filtered into academic circles

1970s saw lots of heated debate on oral history
– discussion was “elite versus non-elite” interviews
– most people have come to understand that oral history as a methodology applies to whoever you are interviewing
– looking at as many people who were involved, from as many perspectives, is beneficial
– interview the general and the private
– the manager and the worker
– oral history as a methodology applies equally to all

Movement has spread worldwide beyond US and Western Europe
– anywhere there has been social upheaval, there is demand for oral history work
– existing archives are often the record of “the old regime” which has been overthrown
– in South Africa they say their “George Washington” and “Thomas Jefferson” are still alive
– British Library was recently given original 1964 dictaphone recording of Nelson Mandela’s trial which sent him to prison
— it was made of thin rubber, they melted it when they played it, and knew it would only play once
— they were able to capture it, take it back and share it with Nelson Mandela
— turns out much of what was reported from his words by stenographer was NOT accurate, he said different things

Technology impacts
– has been beneficial and challenging
– everyone has to adjust to whatever sound recordings are available at the time
– we are such a small percentage of the users of technology, we have no way to shape what the major producers are doing

simple equation: follow the music
– whatever recording devices are most popular for music, is most likely what we’ll have to use and live with

We are in a situation where we don’t know what current materials will last, how long will
– Betamax and VHS
– we have to make sure when we adopt new technologies they actually fit and can work for long-term, archival presentation

Where did it begin?
– 19th century recordings on wax cylinders
– LOC has: “Cross of Gold” speech by William Jennings Bryan (recorded 20 years after the original)
– many were recorded by Native American Tribes, chants, some interviews, going back to the 1890s
– much has been converted to more modern forms

WPA during 1930s
– was not an easy way of sound recordings
– most used a notebook
– many of these people went on to become novelists
– is suspicion that some may have embellished written interviews

Portable wire recorders became available in 1940s
– big, heavy and cumbersome
– there were some at Normandy Beach off the coast on a hospial beach
– the army wanted live history but also live historians
– they were some of the first to interview injured soldiers coming back from the beach

After the war, wire recorders become obsolete
– in Germany, 1st Americans discovered the Germans had invented magnetic tape recorders
– discovered in 1944 / 1945, commercially available in 1948

1948 reel to reel magnetic tape recorders on the market corresponded to establishment of 1st archive at Columbia Univ
– could accommodate stereo recordings of music
– music become very popular

At Columbia they allowed interviews corrected their interviews
– Columbia re-used their tapes, thought they were protecting people by destroying original recordings
– actually advocated this process, discouraged this
– fortunately they have changed that policy over time

Next milestone: 1963 Royals Phillips Electronics introduced the compact cassette recorder
– smaller, less expensive, easier to carry
– just at the time oral history begins to expand enormously
– sound archivists started doing recordings on cassettes and copying to reel to reel
– some archives would just pereserve reel to reel recordings, didn’t respect cassettes
– cassettes made it accessible for so many more

People are now collecting cassette recordings that soldiers created in the 1960s and 1970s
– those sound recordings have preserved over 40 years

finally music cassettes surpassed LP record sales in music

1966: first national colloquium by oral historians: Created national oral history association
– history professors, also people in economics, journalists, librarians, state and local history historians, many others– very ecclectic group
1971 1st British organizational meeting

conferences held around the world every 2 years now by oral history association: in Prague in 2 years
– oral history organizations being founded in other locations
– many local and national organizations now to further oral history
– many doing very different work, but using very different methodology

1996: year int’l organization was founded was also year of explosion of the Internet
– if the board had not had email, they would not have been able to function
– all these organizations have websites
– remarkable amount of this is in English
– lots going on in Latin America in Spanish
– English has been the primary language on the Internet

1980s: analog world broke, recordings on CDS
– 1982 first CD recordings
DAT recordings

1988: CD sales topped cassettes
– books on tape were keeping cassettes on top for years

Are still lots of oral historians that use their cassette recorders
– first time I did a digital recording I used BOTH my cassette and digital recorders

2001 iPod introduced by Apple
– students started doing interview audio immediately with microphones

People ask how to make the transfer to digital?
– I recommend you hire a 14 year old!

This opens up a tremendous amount of possibilities
– right now in Afghanistan and Iraq are doing interviews on compact flash cards and emailing back interviews for transcription

I went to work for US Senate in 1976
– selectric typewriters were in use and state-of-the art
– then a telegrapher would send those to the newspapers
– 1990 finally telegraphers were taken out
– now reporters do writing on laptops and send back reports electronically before hearings are over
– this has had a big impact on oral history collections, and way oral historians share information

Useful devices: the H Oral History List
– allows oral historians to post questions and answers
– Mary who is here from OSU
subscribe to this list

You have a copy of my book in your packet, “Doing Oral History”

I am beginning to think it’s time for a 3rd edition
– I am keeping track of new problems, issues, sources that are raised on H-List
– great resource sharing taking place

oral historians now have a chance to reach an audience beyond their wildest imagination, and it really scares them
– for years at oral history conferences, people
– 1998 was first meeting where I heard: “too many people are looking at our interviews”
– serious ethical questions: release of information
– in our office, we now put full transcript online with a digital audio clip
– started this in the 1990s
– called original interviewees and asked for permission to publish on the Internet even though we had a release
– often at that time they would say, “What is the Internet?”
– often I would hear about grandparents whose

Astonished: one of my interviews got 5000 hits in a single month

We know lots of our users are K12 students doing projects
– when they ask for
Geneologists also using our materials, thanks to Google indexing they can find us and we can put them in touch with interviewee
– lots of users we hadn’t expected, certainly a much larger audience

Some oral history projects just put up audio
– there are new indexing tools that allow for audio

I know there is no such thing as a science of transcription, it is an art
– many transcribers will hear different things
– it’s fair to ask interviewees to edit

I edited 160 closed hearings of Joseph McArthey
– done by professional court stenographers in 1950s
– lots of mistakes, example of “Beth Page” mistake, thinking it was a person rather than a place

Marriage of oral history and digital technology
– are now walking tours with people associated with a place
– can use iPod or cell phone to hear people discuss what you are seeing
– some universities offering oral history courses through distance learning
– students publishing oral histories and materials both on CD and online

Digital interviewing has facilitated video
– it is coming fast in oral history
– Paul calls this “the listening eye”
– there is a video component that is very useful
– also if you think about what you are going to use the oral history interview for: a museum display, a website: video can add

All videographers told me for my book you have to have a crew, lights, etc, you can’t just have 1 person do this all by themselves
– then I ran into someone doing video interviews by himself with new technology
– today when news reporters come to my office, they often take traditional notes and take a video interview
– newspapers now want video too
– newspapers want journalists to report every hour, leads to CONSTANT work for journalists
– shows how much things have changed

DVD cameras around since 1996
– video is becoming much more common

Project “Women in Journalism” Project
– about 60 interviews
– did 4 or 5 interviews on tape, then 1 on video
– found that interviewee responses were very different for a video, much more conscious of performing for the camera, etc

I wrote a book “Reporting from Washington” and included info from that project about female journalists
– found that I cited video interviews much more than audio interviews
– video interviews are often more practiced and concise

People need to think about their past
– in re-interviewing people, they may be able to present a more coherent version of what they did and experienced
– shows how we need to be continually learning

That was the digital transformation, now let’s address the intellectual transformation (past and present)
– oral history as a methodology has attracted a remarkably diverse constituency
– fascinating to talk with all the different people interested and involved in oral history: huge range of people applying oral history to their disciplines

At a conference in Sweden, linguist was showing a quotation about the issue of silence in oral history
– when people don’t finish their stories, historians need to go back and learn why

oral history is a big tent: we don’t all do it the same
– there is a long history of participation
– some use anonymity, others (like historians) don’t want that
– we grapple with this in our ethical statements

Alan Nevins and other historians: generally have sought to acquire information to compensate for lack of diaries and letters
– interested in small details
– filling in gaps in documentary evidence

new school: interested in discrepancies in the documentation
– looking for perceptions, biases, more subjective
– issue of memory: what do people remember, why do they remember?
– good literature coming out now deal with memory studies
– what happens when oral source and written sources contradict?
— often the written record is wrong: In government, many memos are written to shape/change perceptions of people

sometimes the oral record is wrong

Now movement to look at “collective memory”
– some communities will move an event to a different year
– sometimes to black something out
– sometimes to make it more understandable
– all sorts of factors go into this
– scholar: Alesandro Portelli from Italy, “They Say in Harlan County” is forthcoming book mixing memory and oral history studies
– makes us sensitive to memory issues

Truths of oral history: we tend to interview older people more than young
– Gerontologists know: the older you get, you get into a period/season of “life review”
– this accounts for many people’s attitudes when they are older: senses of disappointment or happiness
– sometimes people were unable to talk about their experiences: WWII veterans, Holocaust survivors were

Is now “reminiscence therapy” being used in nursing homes in the US and UK

Are different oral history imperatives in different countries
– we have turmoil in many areas
– 20 year anniversary of Berlin Wall coming down
– end of Apartheid in South Africa
– people now seeking to find closure to issues and eras
– some countries have created “Truth and Reconciliation Commissions,” people have to testify about what they did and put it on the record
— Argentina and South Africa are examples, not exactly Oral History but very close to them

Intersection of grief and history
– when something very traumatic happens
– move to get people’s perceptions as soon as possible after an event happens
– while rescue missions are still underway
– Hurricane Katrina, August of 2005, oral historians started their work
– projects in MS, LA, TN, TX, looking at different aspects of the event and responses
– is a Katrina Jewish Voices project

Terrorist attacks in 2001
– interviews told so many different stories about what was going on
– are a series of interviews with tugboat captains who rushed to NY to rescue people
– kind of like Dunkirk
– my favorite interview: one captained by a women, someone asked her if you have trouble getting the men on your boat to take orders, and she responded that most are married and used to taking orders from women

Columbia Univ have NSF founded interview project, testing the durability of memories
– after 5 and 10 years, people will have more hindsight
– people do need to have some time to reflect
– interviews right after an event tend to be more people venting steam

I just reviewed the book “The Clinton Tapes” by Taylor Branch
– in these, Clinton is venting steam about Starr, Gore, others
– my personal view, like the movie “The President’s Analyst” therepeutic
– Clinton has setup oral history centers in Arkansas and another place
– very interesting to compare those

Today oral history is a mainstay of many: many people who do not cons
60,000 interviews of veteran oral history project
Now Storycorps interviews: These are snapshots / oral vignettes
– I hope Storycorps invite people to participate

USNWR: oral history has never had more currency”
– tools for sharing and distribution open up so many possiblities
– some interviews turning into stage productions
– even a movement to turn oral histories into dance, prof at Rutgers

Latest popular museum in Washington: the Newsem
– who is sitting in front of the screens: everyone under 20
– clear there is a new generation that is digitally focused

Oral history still big part of publishing
Big part of films
– in “Grinch Stole Christmas” they are doing an interviw

Berenstein Bears, “The Giddy Grandma” is about an oral history
– turns out grandma bear was in the circus in her youth
– “she did the best oral history in the history of oral histoy”

Being used in nursing homes, young lawyers doing interviews of older judges creating mentoring relationships

Same method of oral histories being applied to indigenous groups, native groups whose views, perspectives and voices have traditionally been left out of the historical record

Even after writing history from the bottom up, we are discovering there are needed was

The future is here: it’s up to us

Center for Military History by Army has those interviews from Normandy

General SLA Marshall had been a journalists, was looking for propaganda books to boost troop morale
– led to oral histories

book “The Revolution Remembered” by John Dam
– it was the footsoldiers view of the world which was reflected in these interviews of revolutionary war soldiers
– the women, the butchers who accompanied the troops
– there are thousands of these in the Library of Congress
– great story of George Washington, who was 6′ 4″ tall, went into a camp and asked who was the tallest person in the camp
– there was a lot of pressure on people for accuracy, because mistakes meant no pension for the requester

Paul Revere was interviewed by a pastor because Whigs suppressed his view
– he talked about how they planned this
– book about this

Now an “Oral History with Abraham Lincoln”
– Lincoln’s secretaries started interviewing people
– so many people talked about Lincolns fits of depression and his shaky marriage, and his secretaries didn’t want to amplify those aspects of his life

In an earlier period these were called “depositions” and not “oral history”

Different oral history initiatives have to be approached differently depending on the community context, different sensitivities

Journalism and oral history really are not that different: but TIME is a big difference. Oral history is not adversarial, it is designed to draw people out and get history from their perspectives, and oral historians take more time to tell the story. Oral historians are focused on cooperation.

Our standards are in flex, we have to be sensitive at all times, treat people with respect, make sure the record people leave is the record they want to leave.
– often I have to bite my tongue and not share what I know, the interview is about THEM and not me

The Rhinestone Cowboy” could be the theme song for oral history:
– quote: “there’s a load of compromisin’ on the road to my horizon’” is so true in oral history

We are constantly encountering new situations and adjusting

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