Voices of the Past

For any historian, from a budding undergraduate student, to a doctorate holder who has studied history most of their life, they must tackle the difficult question of whether or not a source is valid or useful. Few sources must have this question asked of them more than oral histories, for a plethora of reasons. For one, an oral history is more impromptu than most written documents, and from this a variety of problems arise. Because of the impromptu nature of an oral interview, there is greater chance that the speaker will not remember a particular event or moment in their life correctly, and thus give inaccurate information. This does not come from a desire to hide the truth, but rather it is a matter of simple human error. Another problem is that the interviewer and the person being interviewed will at times have different intentions for the interview, and will thus try to derail the overall conversation. This can make the interview a confused mess, and difficult to use. One must allow the other to guide the interview, thus allowing it to flow properly, and unless the interview is meant to be about a very particular subject, it should be the one being intinterviewed who leads the interview, as their words are the sources historians will use, and thus more important. Even if the information given is inaccurate, or jumbled, it is a useful source for the beliefs of individual people, and can thus be used as a primary source for studying historic memory or social memory. The criticisms that less professional oral history projects such as Storycorps receive are undeserved, as a proper oral history should aspire to be honest and sincere, focused more upon what individuals themselves and what they are drwn to, rather than overly specific events, which will likely be inaccurate to begin with.

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