History and trust

One of the recurring themes in grad school so far has been trust. This primarily has involved sources, and the problems of taking them at face value. Especially with primary sources, how can we trust a document’s author to tell “the truth,” or “the whole story”? Oral history turns this issue of trust into a two-way street: as interviewers, we must deal with trusting our narrators, but we must also create an atmosphere and relationship in which the narrator trusts us enough to share their story.

While reading Sommer and Quinlan’s concise and lucid Oral History Manual, one anecdote stood out to me. In this story, a young white woman interviews an acquaintance, an elderly African-American woman who was the granddaughter of slaves. The interviewer sought to collect information about racism and related issues in the narrator’s childhood, but the narrator did not trust the interviewer to understand. Through open communication, the interviewer encouraged the narrator to open up more, but there remained certain details that the narrator, perhaps out of instinct, kept from the interviewer. [1] Sherrie Tucker deals with a similar problem: how does she write about potential homoromantic experiences in all-girl bands in the 1940s when her narrators refuse to explicitly discuss non-straight sexuality? [2]

I’ve only had one experience taking someone’s oral history, and I doubt any interview will beat it in terms of ease. It was a serendipitous meeting, a Main Line rabbi calling NMAJH to schedule a tour and wanting to make sure she has enough time to visit artifacts from her grandmother. Who was her grandmother?  Eva Baen Kravitz, the Russian immigrant that my program centers around! My supervisor and I drove to her synagogue and we had barely sat down and turned on a phone recorder before the rabbi launched into three hours of stories about her grandmother, no prompting needed. She even called her mother (Eva’s daughter-in-law) on speakerphone a few times to verify details.

What can I do to create a similar comfortable atmosphere in future sessions of oral history? One of the main obstacles for me personally, I would imagine, is the fear of misinterpretation not only creating an unspoken air of anxiety, but hindering me from possibly asking deeper questions. Sommer and Quinlan offer a detailed guide of how to prepare contextual research, both to help inform the interviewer about the subject and also so the interviewer can help prompt the narrator with names and dates if needed. [3] This also helps the interviewer to understand the motivations and limits behind the narrator’s words, such as understanding the political contexts surrounding veterans’ recounted experiences. [4]

Another thing the interviewer can do to create a more comfortable atmosphere concerns the literal atmosphere – the location where the interview takes place. My interview with Eva’s granddaughter took place in her office, where she presumably spends a large portion of her time. It’s similar to the home, which Sommer and Quinlan declare is usually the best setting, due to its convenience and its familiarity to the narrator. [5]

A third (and final, for this post) thing an interviewer can do is accept that the narrator does not necessarily have all the answers, or is willing to share them with the interviewer. The interviewer cannot yank a memory out of the ether, nor can they force the narrator to say something the narrator doesn’t want to. The young white woman experiences this when her narrator changes a culture-specific detail in a story, as does Tucker when the band members refuse to discuss sexuality. I experienced this too, when I attempted to ask the rabbi about a date and she simply could not remember or guess. In these cases, forcing the issue would only hamper the relationship, and the situation has to be dealt with on an individual basis. The young white woman accepts that certain details aren’t for her, Tucker attempts to “talk around” the issue of sexuality, and I decided to try to dig into the archives again.

No two interviews are the same. There are plenty of elements to a successful interview, such as those in Sommer and Quinlan’s manual, but you must have the most important element: trust.


[1] Barbara W. Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan, The Oral History Manual (Walnut Creek: Alta Mira Press, 2002), 71-72.

[2] Sherrie Tucker, “When Subjects Don’t Come Out,” in Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity, edited by Sophie Fuller and Lloyd Whitesell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 295-297.

[3] Sommer and Quinlan, The Oral History Manual, 53-56.

[4] Michael Frisch, “History, Memory, and Cultural Authority,” in A Shared Authority (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 23-24.

[5] Sommer and Quinlan, The oral History Manual, 61.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s