Reflections on the ‘urge to collect’

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By Andrew Shaffer and Linda Shopes

In the most recent issue of the Oral History Review, Linda Shopes started an important discussion about changes she has seen in the field of oral history in “‘Insights and Oversights’: Reflections on the Documentary Tradition and the Theoretical Turn in Oral History”. Linda’s article sparked many interesting arguments on curation versus collection, critical analysis versus volume, and framing individual experiences in wider contexts. Below, we bring to you a continuation of this conversation through an email interview.

In your article you suggest oral historians should focus on curating as opposed to collecting. Can you talk a bit about what that process looks like? What would it mean to create an oral history project that sets out to curate instead of collect?

What I am suggesting here is something like “less is more” or maybe “less so we can do better.” While there’s always room for more interviews on poorly documented subjects, do we really need more interviews to add to the hundreds – probably thousands – we already have with World War II veterans, for example? Maybe we do, but before embarking on them, I’d like to hear a justification. And I’d like planners to think about creative ways of getting in and around the topics at hand, of extending them outward. It seems to me that many interviews are very constricted in scope. Of course, I understand why a classroom or local history project might like to undertake a veterans project, but then I’d ask, is the quality of these interviews sufficient to warrant the time and money necessary to preserve them permanently and make them accessible? How many collections are already languishing in archives with little attention to what’s needed to maintain their physical integrity or to develop appropriate finding aids and means of access – not because staff are careless or inattentive but because there simply aren’t the resources to do so?

As I think I said in the article, “to create an oral history project that sets out to curate instead of collect” means that, at the outset, the value of the project is clearly articulated – the “so what?” question answered carefully. This would include a search for other interviews on the subject and, if they exist, an assessment of whether more interviews are really needed. It means rigorous assessment of interviews during the course of the projectnot just at the end, and based on that assessment, appropriate adjustments of method. It means that the scope of the project includes making the interviews accessible – not just physically accessible but intellectually accessible, adding value by developing mechanisms for facilitating and encouraging use. To me “curate” means both caring for interviews and exercising critical judgment about quality, a measure of selectivity. But to be clear, I understand that repositories may have missions and collecting practices that aren’t especially hospitable to this approach. I am speaking more or less of what to me would be a preferred practice, not a policy that everyone might wish or be able to implement. But I think it’s an idea worth discussing.

I just wish people would slow down a bit and consider the urge to collect.

It seems like there are two problems with the drive to collect oral histories: a lack of critical analysis of the interviews, and the sheer magnitude of interviews available, making it harder to find the “good stuff.” Which problem are you more concerned with?

It seems to me that they are inseparable: If by critical analysis of interviews you mean that we have collections that have never been assessed for quality, that has certainly been the case, a situation related in part to the “sheer magnitude” problem. If you mean that interviews themselves have never been used in a critical study, that too is certainly the case and linked in part to both the lack of access and the “sheer magnitude” issue. Of course, saying this doesn’t obviate the fact that someone working on a given topic may be frustrated by the lack of extant interviews pertinent to that topic. The reverse is also true: finding the “good stuff” is in part related to “lack of critical analysis,” especially in the first sense noted here.

More generally, I’d say doing interviews is the “sexy” part of oral history. I just wish people would slow down a bit and consider the urge to collect. Particularly they need to ask: Why is it important to interview on this particular topic? What are the unanswered questions and how can interviews address them? How can we incorporate quality control in the oral history process? How can we facilitate access and use once the interviews are done? I know that sometimes the urgency of the moment may make consideration of these issues a luxury, but I believe it’s necessary to do so.

But if pressed to choose between the two problems you point out, I’d have to say the former. Partly it’s temperamental – quality at the outset seems of primary importance to me, with the challenge of wading through piles of material to find the gold less so. It’s a problem researchers often face with sources in general. But I also think that if we were more rigorous in developing high quality interviews, we’d have fewer interviews to have to work though. And more “good stuff” in those that are available.

Towards the end of your article you say, “part of our job, I submit, is to make clear the connections between the ‘I’ of the interview and the ‘we’ of the rest of the world.” Can you talk about ways or places you’ve seen this done well?

I’m still working out what I mean by that statement – it points towards what I’ll take up in a second essay. Partly, I mean that we need to get oral history out of the archives and do something with it. And that can take many forms, from books to websites, films to dramatic presentations, public dialogues to walking tours. Partly, I mean that while each person’s story is, of course, unique, it’s also part of a larger story of life at a particular time and place and encodes a whole range of underlying relationships and structures. We need to draw attention to that. Partly, I mean what Paul Thompson said: “All history depends ultimately upon its social purpose.” Of course, even an interview buried in an archive for decades serves a social purpose, but I mean something more active. We need to put oral history to work in the present to inform and inspire, to give depth and meaning to everyday experiences, to engage with and support broader issues and concerns.

But thinking about what you’ve quoted back to me, I’d have to confess that it was, at least in part, provoked by my discontent with the sort of so-called theoretical work I critiqued earlier in the essay – obscurantist work that does little work in the world. But perhaps I implied that oral historians aren’t making the connections I’m suggesting – they are. The Densho Project, which uses oral history to raise awareness about the incarceration (their preferred term) of Japanese Americans during World War II and larger questions of equal justice in a democracy, comes to mind immediately. And the work of participants in the Groundswell network, who use oral history to further social change. I just read Amy Starecheski’s article in the current issue of the Oral History Review – that’s another example. Also the work of winners of OHA’s Stetson Kennedy prize.

I’d like to think that the books published in Palgrave Macmillan’s Studies in Oral History series, which I co-edited for several years, have social meaning. D’Ann Penner and Keith Ferdinand’s Overcoming Katrina: African American Voices from the Crescent City and Beyond has been used in various public forums addressing the social – as opposed to environmental – consequences of the hurricane. Also, interviews in Desiree Hellegers’s No Room of Her Own: Women’s Stories of Homelessness, Life, Death, and Resistance are being crafted into play to raise public awareness about the causes and conditions of homelessness among women. In each case, the oral historians were motivated by a clear social purpose. And going back a few decades, there’s the work of people like Jeremy Brecher, whose Brass Valley project relied largely on oral history to reframe the public debate about deindustrialization in Connecticut’s Naugatuck Valley, and Jack Tchen, whose interviews with Chinese laundrymen in New York in the 1980s were the seed of what became the Museum of Chinese in America.

There is something intrinsic to oral history that matters beyond simply adding to the store of information we have about our world.

I hear rumors that you’re working on a follow up piece to “Insights and Oversights” for an upcoming issue of the Oral History Review. Care to tease us with some of the details here?

As I’ve suggested, I’m still working out the ideas in that piece. But in general, what I’m doing is considering some of the issues that arise when we move oral history out of the archives and into the public sphere, looking at the presentational form I’m most familiar with – that is, publications. I’ll look at some of the ethical issues at stake, the sometimes conflicting claims on our work, and how various authors have addressed them. What I’m arguing, I think (and I have to thank OHR editor Kathy Nasstrom for seeing this in an early draft), is that there is something intrinsic to oral history that matters beyond simply adding to the store of information we have about our world. And that has consequences for our work.

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Image Credit: “Video Tape Archive Storage” by DRs Kulturarvsprojekt. CC by SA 2.0 via Flickr.