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UCLA Magazine Fall 2004
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In Their Own Words
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Fall 2004
In Their Own Words
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Barnett has been with the program for 17 years, beginning as an interviewer straight out of college. She then went on to graduate studies in history at UCLA. In that sense, she says, she came to history through oral history. It did not take her long to realize that many historians still did not offer oral history due respect. She recalls the comment of an older professor during a conference in the early ’90s: “It’s OK for anecdotal, you know … you wanna add a little local color, sure, throw in some oral history.”

“That view has been very predominant,” says Barnett.

TWO MOVEMENTS HAVE HELPED to dislodge oral history’s amateurish reputation. Tired of their stepchild status, oral historians quit apologizing for the unavoidable shortcomings of their discipline — faulty memories, biased interviewees, technical problems — and began questioning written sources’ own validity.

“The memory issues are real, but they’re also real in any memoir someone writes,” Barnett points out. Other types of records have systematic inaccuracies, she adds.

“Anybody who’s been in any organization and seen the official rules, and then observed how things really get done — there may be a wide, wide discrepancy there,” Barnett says. “So if you’re a historian and you’re relying on the written rules … it’s an ideal. Whereas if you interview someone they might say, ‘Well, of course, the boss said that, but in fact, in order to do anything you have to [do this and this]. …’ ”

Also there was a vanguard of theoreticians in the late ’70s who started building a rigorous framework that moved oral history beyond the tired debates about literal accuracy. These researchers argued that even faulty memories of certain events have much to teach us about the way we construct history. While collecting oral histories in a small Italian town, University of Rome Professor Alessandro Portelli, for example, noticed that many of his subjects made the same factual error. They moved by four years the date when a young worker named Luigi Trastulli was killed in a clash with police during an anti-NATO demonstration in 1949. Instead, they recalled the event having occurred in 1953 during a period of massive layoffs that led to large demonstrations. Their recollections, Portelli noted, had shifted to a period that had a much more profound and lasting impact for the community.

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