This contribution is from Matt Simek, NOHA member.
During a recent visit to Shepherdstown, West Virginia, I was fortunate to spend some time with Donald A. Ritchie, historian of the U.S. Senate, former president of the Oral History Association, and council member of the International Oral History Association. Among his books are the widely used manual, Doing Oral History, now in its second edition, and the Oxford Handbook on Oral History. As senate historian, he and his staff conduct an oral history program, among other responsibilities of the office.
I asked Don for a few thoughts on his experience with “doing oral history” and thought his observations were worth sharing with other NOHA members….
Do you have a “most memorable” interview?
DR: All of my interviews have been memorable in some fashion, and they’ve given me an opportunity to meet some fascinating individuals and learn a great deal from them. But one that stands out in particular was with Christine McCreary, the secretary who integrated the Senate cafeteria in 1953. On her first day, she asked her senator, Stuart Symington, where she could eat lunch, and he sent her to the cafeteria without realizing that it served only white staff members. She described the consternation on her arrival, and how one of the cafeteria staff pushed a plate out so fast that it sailed past her and broke on the floor. With everyone looking at her, she simply got another plate. “And then I went back the next day, and the next day, until finally they got used to seeing me coming in there and then there was no more problems with that.” There is no written record of the segregation of dining facilities on Capitol Hill, but McCreary’s interview provided a vivid account of the atmosphere that existed in the era before civil rights legislation. Her interview is on the Senate website at .
What is your current project?
DR: The Senate Historical Office continues to conduct life review interviews with former senators and staff. Among the individuals I have recently interviewed are a senator who was appointed to fill a vacancy during the last Congress, a party floor secretary, and a staff aide to three former senators. We try to do a cross-section of people involved in the Senate, everyone from the committee clerks and parliamentarians to the barbers and telephone operators, to leave a record of how the modern Senate has functioned.
What is the ultimate value of collecting and preserving oral histories from “ordinary” citizens?
DR: Everyone has a story to tell. Those at the top were involved in high-level policy decisions, but the “ordinary” members of the Senate’s community keep the daily functioning of the institution from becoming a distraction to the policy makers. Many of the recent interviews have dealt with technological innovations, and how computers and teleconferencing abilities have facilitated (and in some cases complicated) the legislative process. Any institutionally or community based oral history project should plan to do a cross-section of interviews with those at all levels, from managers to staff, if they want to understand how things really work.
What are the most common errors of amateur oral historians?
DR: Learning how to frame questions and then listen to the answers are harder than most people expect. Good questions should never presuppose the answers, but should be open-ended enough to allow the interviewees to speak their minds. Listening also requires a great deal of concentration, to catch the unexpected responses that prompt follow-up questions.
How should oral history interviews be preserved in the digital age?
DR: Oral history has been recorded on every possible form of recording devices, many of which no longer exist. It’s important to place the recordings in a library or archives that can preserve the originals and make copies available for research. Transcribing interviews will better assure both their preservation and their use.
What are some ways to evaluate whether an interview is worth keeping?
DR: Adam Smith asserted that the real value of anything is the toil and trouble of acquiring it. If you’ve gone to the trouble of collecting the materials–and have worked to maintain the basic oral history standards–then you have an obligation to preserve them for future researchers. The interviewees will not be around forever, and your interview may be the only record that person leaves behind. Interviews that may initially seem disappointing may have different meaning and worth to future researchers, because other evidence will have shed new light on the matters being discussed. But interviews that lack deeds of gift to establish copyright may severely reduce the accessibility of that material for other researchers. (Note: The internet offers many examples of interview consent forms and transcript release forms that can easily be adapted to your specific needs. MS)
Will a third edition of Doing Oral History update changing technology?
DR: The first edition came out in 1995 and the second in 2003. Between those years, the digital revolution occurred and affected almost every phase of conducting and preserving interviews. Only the basic human element of doing an interview remained unchanged. Technology has continued to evolve at a fast clip, particularly the use of the Internet to make oral history more available on a worldwide basis. Oral historians have also grown even more creative in the ways they package and present interviews to the public. I have collected a great deal of material for a new edition and am beginning to put it together. I am eager to hear from users of the book about issues and items they would like to see in the next edition.
(Don Ritchie can be reached by writing email@example.com.)