2019 Virtual Issue: Practicing Oral History, Expanding the Profession

By Abigail Perkiss, Janneken Smucker, and Nicole Strunk

In his 1975 Oral History Review article, “The Future of Oral History,” among William W. Moss’s predictions about the profession of oral history was that “after a period of glut and famine, oral history will come back, better than ever.” Over forty years later, that is indeed what has happened, thanks to an expanding field; new technologies; increasing points of access; and widening efforts to record, preserve, and interpret oral testimonies. Oral history as a practice and method is now more diverse than ever. The Oral History Association (OHA) has long promoted a big tent approach to defining oral history and oral historians, celebrating the field as “a powerful tool for democratizing history.” To be sure, oral history has long served as a methodology to unearth hidden histories and open up our understanding of the past beyond traditional sources and interpretations. But such an undertaking is also, at times, uneven and difficult to actualize. As the call for papers for the 2019 OHA annual meeting asks, “Has the change in who is working in oral history been reflected in the histories we gather and how we provide access to those histories?” 

This year’s OHA meeting theme, “Pathways in the Field: Considerations for those Working in, On, and Around Oral History,” calls on its members to think deeply about our profession. The thing is, as practitioners of oral history, we aren’t all working in one profession. We are historians, folklorists, activists, archivists, filmmakers, educators, documentarians, and medical professionals. Our work is paid and unpaid, interpretive and creative. The diversity of our experiences requires us to ask: Who is an oral historian? What does it mean to do oral history? And how does that work happen?

Each author featured in this special issue takes these questions as their starting point. Each pushes us to consider the parameters of our field and the ways in which we define and categorize our work. Taken in aggregate, this selection of articles teaches us that the methods of oral history have permeated well beyond the halls of university departments, finding a home in clinical medical settings as recounted by Erin McCarthy in “‘Is Oral History Good for You?’” and by Michael Nutkiewicz in “Diagnosis versus Dialogue”; overlapping with and diverging from the strategies employed by journalists, as Mark Feldman chronicles in “Kissing Cousins: Journalism and Oral History”; interacting with creative storytelling, as Anna Hirsch and Claire Dixon show us in “Katrina Narratives: What Creative Writers Can Teach Us about Oral History”;  and raising awareness and effecting change, as Anne Balay discusses in “Surprised by Activism.” Articles in this issue examine the professional and philosophical roots of the field, highlighting both the strong social history emphasis—“from the bottom up”—and the practice of interviewing elite leaders in politics and business. Read together, Rob Perks’s “The Roots of Oral History” and Daniel Kerr’s “Allan Nevins Is Not My Grandfather” examine these paradoxical paths from which the profession of oral history has emerged. 

Meanwhile, with a focus on the activist ethos of the field, Shaun S. Nethercott and Neil O. Leighton’s “Memory, Process, and Performance” showcases how collaborative, cross-disciplinary work can result in interpretations of the past that embody the democratic ethos espoused by the Oral History Association, as they demonstrate in their Labor Theater Project. Through this work, practitioners transformed oral history interviews with striking workers into playwriting and public performance. 

In a much different professional setting, Erin McCarthy and Michael Nutkiewicz each approach oral history as a vehicle through which to humanize the medical field. Separate interview projects conducted with veterans with prostate cancer and patients at the UCLA Pediatric Pain Clinic demonstrate ways that the qualitative practice of oral history can enhance the quantitative fields of science. Interviews provide professionals in a wide variety of fields with the opportunity to encourage deep listening and reflection.

Finally, as a cautionary tale, Teresa Iacobelli’s analysis of what she views as the misuse of oral history by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in its production of two documentary films about Canadian military history suggests the necessity of promoting the field’s best practices, a primary mission of the Oral History Association. As Iacobelli writes, such best practices, at times, have been in tension with the drive to democratize the field of oral history.

While traditionally, oral history as a field has served to document and contemplate the past and how we remember it, the process of interviewing has allowed practitioners working in a variety of fields to make sense of the world as it is today. This special issue offers readers insights into these dual consciousnesses. It pushes readers to consider the expanding landscape of oral history and the ways in which the broadening boundaries of the field necessarily force us to reflect not only on what it means to do oral history, but to do oral history well.

William W. Moss (1975)The Future of Oral History,” The Oral History Review, 3:1, 5-15.

Mark Feldstein (2004)Kissing Cousins: Journalism and Oral History”, The Oral History Review, 31:1, 1-22.

Anna Hirsch & Claire Dixon (2008)Katrina Narratives: What Creative Writers Can Teach Us about Oral History”, The Oral History Review, 35:2, 187-195.

Anne Balay (2016)Surprised by Activism: The Effects of One Oral History on Its Queer Steel-Working Narrators”, The Oral History Review, 43:1, 69-80.

Rob Perks (2010)The Roots of Oral History: Exploring Contrasting Attitudes to Elite, Corporate, and Business Oral History in Britain and the U.S.”, The Oral History Review, 37:2, 215-224.

Daniel R. Kerr (2016)Allan Nevins Is Not My Grandfather: The Roots of Radical Oral History Practice in the United States”, The Oral History Review, 43:2, 367-391.

Shaun S. Nethercott & Neil O. Leighton (1990)Memory, Process, and Performance”, The Oral History Review, 18:2, 37-60.