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UCLA Magazine Fall 2004
From Murphy Hall
The Next Wave
How “Human” Are We?
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In Their Own Words
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Fall 2004
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“The discrepancy between fact and memory ultimately enhances the value of the oral sources as historical documents,” Portelli wrote in a now-famous paper.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 fact checking.

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.

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