In Their Own Words
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“The discrepancy between fact
and memory ultimately enhances the value of the oral sources as
historical documents,” Portelli wrote in a now-famous paper.
“It (the discrepancy) is not caused by faulty recollections
… but actively and creatively generated by memory and imagination
in an effort to make sense of crucial events and of history in
general. Indeed, if oral sources had given us ‘accurate,’
‘reliable,’ factual reconstructions of the death of
Luigi Trastulli, we would know much less about it.
“Oral history sources tell us not just what people did,
but what they wanted to do, what they believed they were doing
and what they now think they did,” Portelli has written.
Subjective experience is a historical phenomenon, says Barnett,
citing for example the different views of one’s self and
one’s community in oral histories from Western versus Eastern
Europe. But, Barnett adds, the full analytical potential of oral
history has yet to be unlocked. “Most historians are still
using oral history in a kind of, ‘Just the facts, ma’am’
sort of way,” she says.
Of course, getting the facts and getting them right remains
the priority in any oral-history interview. When hiring interviewers,
Barnett looks for someone with strong knowledge in areas of interest
to the program. In addition to Cline, who conducts most interviews
relating to music, the program’s staff includes an independent
filmmaker with a doctorate in film. Every new interviewer must
pass the program’s own training workshop. After an interview
is transcribed, the transcript goes back to the interviewee for
Inevitably, some mistakes and biases get past the editing process.
“Every source is biased in its own way and I think you just
have to know that and you try to look at all the sources in connection
with each other,” says Barnett. In as much as this caveat
applies across all historical sources, it shows oral history may
finally rank as an equal among its peers.