The complexity of biography

View Post on OUP Blog

By Liz Strong

Throughout the month of July the students and alumni of the Oral History Masters program at Columbia University are occupying the OHR blog, bringing some of their insights and experiences to our corner of the Internet. This first post in the #OHMATakeover begins with Liz Strong responding to post originally published here last November, discussing how to strike a balance in the inclusion of biography in oral history interviews. Stay tuned to the OHR blog throughout the month of July for additional pieces from OHMA students and alumni, and come back in August for a return to our regularly scheduled program. For more from Columbia’s oral history program, visit them online at or follow their blog.

I came across Oral History and Childhood Memories by Evan Faulkenbury on the Oral History Review’s blog. His emphasis on narrators’ earliest memories caught my eye. Faulkenbury describes his own experiences as an interviewer, highlighting the importance of talking about narrators’ memories of growing up. Faulkenbury’s insights sent me scrounging through my old notes and photocopies from when I was a student at the Columbia Oral History MA program. Heaped under a pile of thesis drafts, IRB training manuals, and course syllabi was this helpful handout given to me during my first fall semester.

“Tips on Oral History Interviewing,” by Amy Starecheski

In this formative example of grad-school handouts, Starecheski explains the value of a “biographical approach” to oral history interviews:

Oral historians tend to be interested in subjectivity, in how people make meaning and make stories out of their experiences. Asking, as much as possible, for a full, well-rounded, multi-layered life story helps us to bring the interviewee’s subjectivity in to the interview. We need to know what experiences, ideas, and people created the interviewee’s unique point of view.

Oral history sources are distinguished from other historical evidence precisely because they are not objects, or texts. They are people. Where historians can investigate and examine archival documents, analyze and present them within the relevant contexts to understand them, oral historians can interrogate their sources directly. If you ask your source a question about how they came to a certain conclusion, why they were motivated to take a certain action, they’ll answer it. This is what makes oral history unique. Moreover, it is a valuable opportunity to provide key information for future researchers to interpret the records you and your narrator are creating. Don’t miss it!

Faulkenbury’s approach to building biographical context in his interviews, as described in his article, is specifically centered on childhood. He writes, “These memories enhanced the total value of the interview, and they opened the door to more questions, more stories, and a richer interview…” While I agree with Faulkenbury, I would push farther to say that childhood is not the sole font of all motivations, identity, and character-forming experiences. A biographical approach to contextualizing narrators’ memories can be integrated throughout an oral history interview. Interest in a narrator’s personal background need not be relegated to the first portion of a life story. Their adult memories are just as valuable.

There are a few fundamental components of a narrator’s biography that, as interviewers, we look for like trail markers: Who are they? Where do they come from? Who are their people, their family, their community? What events or actions have shaped them? The answers to these questions will change throughout different stages of a narrator’s life, and also through different ways of remembering that life. These answers are vital to the quality of the oral history. However, they are innumerable. As interviewers, we must also avoid the rabbit hole of purely biographical interviewing. Our interviews have a specific research focus, and we won’t be able to capture everything.

Over the past year, I’ve been Oral History Coordinator for the New York Preservation Archive Project (NYPAP). The guiding purpose of our oral history interviews with leaders of historic preservation efforts in New York City is to fill a gap in existing resources about the movement. We have clear goals for our interviews, and limited time and funds with which to conduct them. However, taking the time to understand someone’s perspective on the field, or their expertise on a historic site, requires some meaningful engagement with their biography. As one narrator I interviewed for NYPAP, Sam Goodman, put it, “these stories have a lot to do with who I am, both as an individual and as a professional.” His stories weren’t just about his memories of growing up in the neighborhood, but of coming back as an adult and seeing it change, going to community meetings, being inspired by new people, and getting a job where he felt he could make a positive difference in the area.

Taking the time to understand someone’s perspective on the field, or their expertise on a historic site, requires some meaningful engagement with their biography.

Faulkenbury described his oral history students’ skepticism when he encouraged them to capture childhood memories during the early stages of their interviews. “They may think,” he says, “stories about growing up have nothing to do with their project at hand, and they don’t want to waste time talking about childhood memories.” While biographical stories are indeed necessary, the concern about wasting time is astute. Resources are always limited, priorities must be set to attain the research objectives of an oral history, and not all biographical information is equally useful. There is an important balance to be struck when seeking out the relevant context in a person’s life. This is made even more challenging because those moments of biographical context are woven throughout a person’s entire life, not only their early life. In response to Faulkenbury’s article, I would only caution that chasing childhood stories not become an end in itself. Guided by your research goals, you’ll be able to find excellent personal background from a person’s whole life, and still wrap up the interview on time.

This post was originally published on the OHMA blog. Add your voice the conversation by chiming into the discussion in the comments below, or on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, or Google+.

Featured image: “Photograph of Butler Library, Columbia University’s largest single library.” by JSquish, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.