Oral history: “The privilege of sharing intimate moments”

Posted on 23/06/2014 by


Linda Shopes is one of the keynote speakers at next month’s Oral History Society conference, Community voices: Oral history on the ground. Shopes  is a developmental editor and independent consultant in oral and public history in the United States and has more than three decades’ experience in oral history. She is a past president of the U.S. Oral History Association and helped develop the association’s principles and best practices for oral history.

Here, she talks to the OHS about her work.

Oral History Society: How did you become interested in oral history?

Linda Shopes: I was a young wife and mother in the early 1970s when the women’s movement came along and, as they say, just altered my consciousness. I realised that I had to do something more with my life. I got involved with a publication called Women: A Journal of Liberation, which did an issue on women in history – it was like a bolt of lightening. Who knew?  Women had a history.  I realised then that I wanted to study history.

I also wanted to find out more about my immigrant grandparents, all four of whom were from Eastern Europe. So the two interests converged – women’s history and family history.  And I knew oral history was essential for this, given the paucity and biases of the extant record.  I enrolled in a graduate programme in history at the University of Maryland and during my first semester, took an oral history course taught by Martha Ross, a pioneer of U.S. oral history. Martha mentored many of my generation of oral historians including Donald Richie [historian of the US Senate].

OHS: Can you tell us about some early oral history projects?

LS: I did a couple of interviews with my family and wrote a paper for a course.  My interests quickly merged with social history, which was very much alive in the academy. I was involved in a couple of projects with a heritage group in Baltimore and I did some interviews with the workers in Baltimore’s canneries.  I wound up editing a collection that was an early effort to document the social history of Baltimore – The Baltimore Book: New Views of Local History.

People of my generation very much see community-based history as a force for social change. I think it’s still true today but maybe our claims were a bit exaggerated – history, disconnected from public life, can help shift people’s views of the past but by itself cannot change current conditions.

OHS: What are you working on now?

LS: A manuscript that traces the historiography of oral history – how “making sense of oral history” has evolved over the years, and the ways the various interpretive strategies reflect broader intellectual and social trends.  I’m also teaching an oral history course via distance learning in the Masters of Arts in Cultural Sustainability programme at Goucher College, plus various editing jobs.

OHS: How do you think oral history has changed over the years – both in terms of its perception and practice?

LS: Oral history has certainly gained legitimacy as a method. There are only a few dinosaurs here and there who question its value.

But I think with new media, and people documenting their lives in all sorts of ways people think ‘oh let’s do an oral history project’ as if it’s something easy. I also sometimes wonder if we really need another interview on a given topic and do we need to put every interview on the internet? Its popularity has perhaps eroded a sense of quality.

The biggest change is interpretative. Back in the day we viewed oral history as adding more information  to the record – we treated it as a document, containing more facts that we then assess as true or false. We still see oral history as filling in the gaps of our knowledge but now we look at the interview itself – we look at the operations of memory, the performance and interactive elements, the what we term intersubjectivity.

New media is also affecting our practice. From my own experience when people know their interview is going to be posted online they are much more circumspect. Oral history has always been subject to misuse but I think the potential is far greater now.

OHS: What do you value most about oral history from your own personal experience?

LS: One of the very first interviews I did was with an elderly Italian immigrant to the U.S. I asked him if he ever regretted coming to the United States. He said his only regret was that his son had been killed in World War Two and if he had stayed in Italy then maybe he would still be alive. He described to me how he had watched the messenger approach his house with the telegram telling him his son was dead.

It was very moving – and oral history gives you the privilege of sharing those intimate moments with people. People have an innate eloquence and it’s what draws us all.  The ways people make their way through life just has an enduring fascination for me – the human drama, the human mosaic.

I also interviewed a Polish immigrant who told me that she hadn’t  worked after her marriage – her job was to care for her family and home. In the second interview she then talked about a waitressing job she’d had. She said that she’d never thought of this as work – she was helping out a friend who owned the restaurant.

It taught me a lot about how people conceive of the same thing differently. It was a moment that opened me up to the more interpretive elements of oral history.

  • Linda Shopes will be joined as a keynote speaker at the OHS annual conference by Simon Elmes, creative director of the BBC radio documentaries unit. The conference takes place on 18th and 19th July at Manchester Metropolitan University. For more information and to book a place at what promises to be a fascinating and lively event click here.