Oral History

By Eleana Silk


We   learn the facts about any historical time by study and research. But we can   never know everything about the time; we were not there. The written history   of mankind is filled with documents—books, letters, diaries, legal papers,   church documents, business papers, census records. But these documents do not   record the everyday activities of people—what did they eat, what stories   did they tell, what tools did they use, what songs did they sing? History is   interesting when it focuses on human beings. The gathering of conversations,   songs, legends, speeches and interviews is the purpose of oral history. A tape   recorder, an interviewer, an interviewee and a topic of conversation provide   the setting for oral history.

When   we study history we are trying to imagine ourselves in times past. What was   it like to be on the Mayflower? What was it like to be in the church of Hagia   Sofia in Constantinople in the 9th century? What was it like in the time of   Christ? We can’t talk to people who lived during these times, but we can talk   to our parents, grandparents and our great-grandparents. The people we meet   everyday are not likely to have written an article for a magazine or paper,   let alone a book. In the early part of the 20th century people still kept diaries   and wrote letters, but now in this age of technology we no longer take the time   to keep track of our daily activities. Letters are written on computers and   purged when the disk gets too full. Few people save letters they receive. Our   written historical record is now almost totally dependent on what the historians   say and what our libraries save. Oral history can play a major role in recording   the history that we no longer write down.

Parish   Usage

How   can oral history benefit the Orthodox Church parish? You may be celebrating   your 10th, 50th or any other anniversary in the near future. A perfect project   for this anniversary would be to record the story of how the parish began. What   was life like, church services, music, the priests, the good times and what   bad? Although oral history interviews can be done by anyone, this is a very   good teaching method for the parish teens. Teens like to do things and oral   history can give them the opportunity to find out about the Orthodox Church   in a unique way. We now regularly speak of the “generation gap” and   teens interviewing grandparents and other elders of the church gives two generations   an opportunity to become friends. When we understand the history of the times   before ours, we become more tolerant of other ways of doing things and differences   in people.


General   Oral History Methods

Find   another person, a cassette tape player and just “talk.” One of the   most important elements in doing an oral history is to have fun doing it. But   in order to have a good oral history tape you must prepare, just as you would   to write something. You must have a working tape player, select a topic, choose   people to interview, have a question outline, do the interview, and save the   cassette tape (and a tape transcription if possible) in a place where other   people can use it for research. The following information will help you to organize   oral history projects.

Choosing   the Interviewee

You   must choose a person you want to interview, keeping in mind you also must be   interested in the topic that will be discussed. Choosing a topic is very important   so that the interview has a direction and does not wander indiscriminately.   It is also good to progress in a chronological order or a historical order in   discussing the topic. When first beginning to do oral histories, choose someone   who is a good speaker and is comfortable with the interview format. Some people   who are not comfortable with the interview situation will answer questions with   one sentence or one word and you must continuously draw them out by saying “Can   you elaborate on that? Do you have further opinions?” This is very difficult   when you are just learning interviewing techniques. Choosing a person who speaks   well will help you to gain confidence in your interviewing techniques. It is   a two-way conversation and you must be able to formulate intelligent questions.   The questions are very important.

  Interview Techniques

One   of the most difficult challenges to oral history is to constantly pay attention   to the person in front of you. You may be distracted by all kinds of noise,   people talking in the background, dogs barking, clocks chiming. You have to   be really disciplined to always have that next question ready. You must make   sure you ask the questions clearly and concisely so the person knows what you   are talking about. When you first start interviewing, an hour tape will seem   like an eternity. It is also more difficult to concentrate as the interview   progresses and your mind wanders. Make notes to yourself—topics to return   to again and future questions to ask.

Try   not to have long discussions with the person you are interviewing. You are interested   in the views or stories of the interviewees—let them talk! You have to remember   who is doing the interviewing. If they have questions, stop the tape or volunteer   to answer them at the end of the interview. There are times when you need to   interrupt the person if they have strayed too far from the topic of discussion.   Refrain from putting in too may comments of your own, but there are times when   this may be necessary to clarify a point they are making or give them a word   if they are floundering and searching for the right word. Caution is needed   at all times because you can disturb the train of thought of the interviewee.   Also be careful not to offend the interviewee with questions that are presumptuous   or that would indicate they are “wrong” or would place anyone on the   defensive. Oral history should not be some kind of test or exam for the interviewee.   You are usually limited by an hour interview and must lead the comments back   to the topic when necessary. Leading phrases such as “Getting back to,”   or “Going on to” are necessary to keep the interview moving. An hour   interview is very tiring for both people and an interview should not last much   longer. Further interviews can be set up for a later time.

There   is a tension between the interviewer and the interviewee that must be maintained   for a good interview. You, the interviewer, need not agree with everything that   is said, but you do need to ask challenging questions. You want to get the historical   facts down on tape, but you also want to ask the how and why questions. This   is often difficult, as a logical question for you will seem crazy or silly to   the person who has lived through the experiences. The interviewee may need time   to think about your question, as he never thought about his experiences from   that point of view before. The first question often sets the tone of the interview.   Choose it carefully. People are most comfortable talking about themselves and   their own experiences, so ask them personal questions. You should think about   the questions you want to ask before you do the interview, but don’t write them   down in great detail. You must be flexible enough in the interview to change   direction if the interviewee has a particularly interesting story. End the interview   with a “catch all” question which allows the interviewee to add anything   not yet covered.

  Physical Preparations

You   also have to be prepared physically with a tape recorder that is in good working   order and that you can depend on. Use 60 minute cassettes; 90 and 120 minute   cassette tapes are thinner, break more easily and the sound track can wear through   the tape. Using an external microphone rather than the built in microphone will   give a better sound recording. Have batteries that are good and an extension   cord ready in case of emergencies when batteries are not functioning. As you   are doing the interview, you must check your tape recorder periodically to make   sure it is functioning properly. This is especially important as you begin the   interview, for much can be lost if the recorder is not working. This must be   done as inconspicuously as possible to keep the interviewee at ease. The ideal   goal with an oral history interview is for both people to forget that the tape   recorder is even there. Then the interview will progress smoothly and comfortably.   When a problem develops with the recorder, it is very difficult to reconstruct   what was lost.

It   is also very important for you to make the proper adjustments in recording for   the sound level to be correct. Remember to take into consideration the timber   of the voice you are recording and make adjustments accordingly to produce a   tape that is “listenable.” If you have a pause button on your tape   recorder, use it. Let the person you are interviewing know it is there and let   him feel free to use it too. If time is needed to think, to formulate an answer   or to ask you a question, the tape can be easily stopped. We want to have the   best tape possible, but there is no need to be extremely professional. You should   also watch the time. Note the time you started the interview and then be ready   to turn the tape when thirty minutes has been reached. That time in between   can sometimes be very critical if a person has a thought in mind that you don’t   want to lose. The goal is a good, understandable tape.

You   must remember to put an introduction on the cassette tape containing the following   information:

1.   Name of person interviewed
  2. Date of interview
  3. Place of interview
  4. Any other pertinent information

Then   leave a blank space of 15-30 seconds on the cassette tape so that more information   can be added later if necessary.

As   you progress in doing interviews, confidence develops and you need to be careful   that you do not become “sloppy” in your technique. You still need   to prepare for each interview no matter how many interviews you have done on   the same subject. You have to think about the questions you want to ask and   think about what has happened in the preceding interviews so you can relate   and ask certain questions that have come up in other interviews. Plan the times   and places of the interviews ahead of time and make sure that the interviewee   knows what you are doing. Be prompt. The interviewee may get very nervous if   you are late. Your task is to try to make that person in front of you feel comfortable.   He or she may never have been interviewed before or may never have had to talk   on a tape player. Answer any questions ahead of time. If a person is very hesitant,   give reference to someone you have interviewed already and the person who has   been interviewed can help in reassurance.

Longer   Projects

If   your project is longer than one interview, keep a diary of field notes made   during each interview. Use the diary to prepare questions for future interviews   and to help collate your information for any written presentations you may wish   to make. You many want to include men and women, young and old, clergy and laity.   Determine ahead of time the scope of your project and the number of people you   will interview. Oral history projects have a tendency to become very unmanageable,   as there is always something more interesting that needs to be recorded. Once   you have selected who you will interview, you must determine the order for the   interviews. Some interviews are easy and you may want to do them first. Or you   may want to build on your own information about the topic and save some important   interviews until the end when you know more and can ask better questions. After   doing several interviews, review the project. You may want to add or delete   names to your list, or revise your questions.

Saving   the Cassette Tapes

A   library is the best place to deposit the cassette tapes. Your parish library   is an appropriate place, but your oral history research needs to be more readily   available to scholars. The St. Vladimir’s Seminary Library has an oral history   collection of tapes. Please send copies of your oral history tapes along with   any pertinent written information to the library: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Library,   575 Scarsdale Rd., Crestwood, NY, 10707. You can call the library for further   information at: (914) 961-8313. The last page of this article is a form that   allows the library to let its patrons use the oral history tapes. The interviewer   and interviewee need to sign the form. This form is very general and you can   add limitations to it if the interviewee is hesitant about depositing the tape   in the library. Phrases such as, “not to be used for (5, 10, 25) years”   or “not to be used until my death” are appropriate. Again, call the   St. Vladimir’s Seminary Library if you have any questions.

Oral   History Theory and Problems

In   oral history the interviewer and interviewee are creating history. The tape   is a form of history that would not exist without these two people. We are creating   a now about the then. We introduce new evidence to the story. Topics important   to us today, such as the woman’s view, become important for yesterday’s times   even if that topic was not important then. We are searching for new meanings   and we create material. People like to be interviewed and the rapport between   these two people is very important. The relationship is one of linguistics,   psychology, and sociology. You as interviewers needs to be careful that the   interviewee is not altering his material to fit what you want to hear. You are   an alien to the relationship between the interviewee and his history. This tension   is good. Resolve it and you are in trouble. If you challenge too much, the interviewee   may stop in anger. If you don’t challenge enough, the interview has little meaning   beyond nostalgia. (If nostalgia is your goal, then it is acceptable.) Oral history   produces a special document that uses the memory of what happened then to explain   life since then until now.


There   is a lot of history of the Orthodox Church in this country - people, places,   events - that will never be recorded in writing. Few people take the time to   write a book about events that have happened to them in the Church. This type   of history is very important because it gives the color, the background, the   understanding of what the Church was like through the eyes of its members. Nowadays   we have video tape machines, so we can video tape liturgies for future generations   of historians. It would have been very interesting to see a ninth century Byzantine   Liturgy. Occasionally we have those insights into history, but they are few   and far between. Oral histories help future generations to understand the events   of our time through our eyes and memories.

For   Further Reading:

Grele,   Ronald J. Envelopes of Sound: The Art of Oral History, Chicago, IL: Precedent   Publishing, 1985.
  Hoopes, James. Oral History: An Introduction for Students, Chapel Hill, NY:   The University of North Carolina Press, 1979.
  Stitton, T. Oral History: A Guide for Teachers (and Others), Austin, TX: University   of Texas Press, 1983.
  Thompson, Paul. The Voice of the Past: Oral History, Oxford: Oxford University   Press, 1988.
  Voices: A Guide to Oral History, Province of British Columbia, Provincial Archives,   1984.


For   Discussion:

  1) How did your parish begin? Are there any original members still in the parish?   Who are they?

2)   Make a list of the people in your parish, in your area who would be interesting   to interview.

3)   Think through who would make good interviewers. Would some of the teens or students   in an older church school class be willing to become interviewers?

4)   How could you make use of the oral history tapes once they are made?


Eleana   Silk is Librarian and a member of the faculty of St. Vladimir’s Seminary. She   is also a member of the OCA Department of History and Archives.

Taken   from the OCA Resource   Handbook for Lay Ministries