Getting It down Right: Oral History's Reliability in Local History Research

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The Oral History Review

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Local historians have always relied on oral history to provide the details that escaped notice in the written record. With note pad in hand, historians questioned old-timers about their lives in neighborhoods or towns. They took notes of these conversations, trying to record faithfully a narrator's personality and the information, stories, and humor contained in the interview. Even though those notes only approximated the content and spirit of interviews and accuracy sometimes suffered because of the interviewers' prejudices, preconceptions, and expectations, the information was usually extremely valuable.

When tape recorders became available, local historians increased their use of oral history and the results improved. But using tape recorders also created a new oral history process. The machine changed the interviewer-narrator relationship. What had before been a fairly easy-going conversation between an interviewer and a narrator hereupon became a formal exercise. Interviewers could now record everything-questions, responses, and the general ambience of an interview-and researchers could have access to the unadulterated recording. This capability made the oral history interview a primary source. Although some have questioned the reliability of oral history, prominent historians and scholars have laid to rest those questions by noting that the oral history interview is but one additional historical source that should be tested and scrutinized. And some authorities, Paul Thompson among them, have demonstrated that the oral history interview is often more reliable than are traditional written sources.


The Oral History Review © 1984 Taylor & Francis, Ltd.