This week’s readings all dealt with Oral Histories in various ways. If I were to name one of these texts as the “central tenet” of the week, I would have to choose Barbara Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan’s The Oral History Manual. This is a brief but immensely useful guide to oral history projects, providing brief outlines in the first chapter, and going into those outlines’ details in later chapters. This manual seems to go through every stage of the oral history interview process, from planning the oral history project through deciding to which repository you will send the interviews. Chapter 4 of The Oral History Manual covers the legal and ethical questions one needs to consider before and while conducting an oral history interview. In the introduction, Quinlan and Sommer state that asking these questions is imperative to establishing trust and rapport with the narrator (the interviewee).
These kinds of legal and ethical questions are what gave rise to Leon Fink’s article, “When Community Comes Home to Roost.” What began, for Fink, as researching an oral history project at the Coleemee Historical Association run by the Rumley’s, devolved into a series of ethical dilemmas, among which was one of his key questions, “Whose memory and which places get preserved?” The last part of that question was the one I tackled last week when discussing preservation, but in tackling the oral history projects the Rumley’s first part through oral history interviews, a similar quandary arises. Given the situation in which Fink found himself, what he described, essentially, as a problematic historical project about local heritage in North Carolina, at the end of his research and as he prepared to publish his findings on the subject he had to consider the Rumley’s wishes; he had interviewed them for his research, and they had signed a formal release agreement but wished to retract it for fear of defamation through his publication. He ultimately decided to publish his research relying on alternative sources of information he gathered during his research.
Sherrie Tucker faced ethical dilemmas as well as methodological ones in her own research on all-woman bands during World War II, about which she wrote in her article, “When the Subjects Don’t Come Out.” Although the initial focus for her research was about women in all-woman bands defying traditional and contemporary gender roles, she began to wonder about the prevalence of alternative sexual orientations in her interviews, especially when her subjects, now elderly, lived with other women. Ethically, based on interviews in which narrators out other former all-woman band members but then retract their statements and other similar experiences, Tucker asked herself whether or not she could publish such things. This posed a methodological issue as well, and the closest thing to an answer Tucker comes to is that one must find a way to write around those silences.
While these two previous texts present the simultaneously ethical and methodological issues one can run into with oral history interviews, Michael Frisch’s essays in “Memory History and Cultural Authority” deal more with the methodological issues of connecting public memory and culture to historical work, as well as the role of oral history interviews in crafting larger historical narratives. For brevity’s sake I will focus solely on his essay, “Oral History and Hard Times: A Review Essay.” In this text Frisch discussed and analyzed the different reactions to the book Hard Times, which included oral history interviews as primary sources for the narrative. While many literary reviewers celebrated it as telling the history of the Great Depression “as it was,” more critical historical reviewers disapproved of the lens through which the narrators told their own stories. This prompted Frisch to question the nature of oral history, what it could teach us, and what questions the reader ought to ask of them. He ultimately asserted that oral history interviews are invaluable to public history by exhibiting, “the selective, synthetic, and generalizing nature of historical memory itself,” something Frisch considers critical in how people in general make sense of the world and our lives.
My experience with oral history began with the Goin’ North Project at West Chester University under Drs. Charles Hardy and Janneken Smucker. The students did not conduct the interviews, but rather took interviews conducted in the 1980s about the first Great Migration to Philadelphia, and created a database, biographical sketches of the narrators, and more. That project was what first inspired my appreciation for oral history, because to hear how someone experienced major historical events like the Great Depression or the Great Migration gives an added depth and reality to something now detached from us by time, and presents us, as Frisch wrote, with a greater understanding of how people make sense of their lives and the world.
 Barbara W. Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan, The Oral History Manual: Second Edition (Alta Mira Press, 2009): p. 8.
 Ibid, p. 7.
 Leon Fink, “When Community Comes Home to Roost,” in Journal of Social History, Vol. 40, no. 1 (Summer, 2006): p. 119.
 Ibid, pp. 138-139.
 Sherrie Tucker, “When the Subjects Don’t Come Out,” in Queer Episodes (University of Illinois Press: 2002): p. 294.
 Ibid, p. 296.
 Ibid, p. 303
 Michael Frisch, “Oral History and Hard Times: A Review Essay,” in A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (State University of New York Press, 1990): p. 8.
 Ibid, p. 13.