Closeup Listening

Oral history projects organized, performed, and/or administered by archives and libraries create opportunities for audiences dispersed by geography and date to hear first person accounts of personal and public events. Typically led or encouraged by a prepared interviewer who prompts for details or expansions on the featured speaker’s memories and observations, these histories arise without a pre-written script and so arrive in fully oral vernaculars: the pitches and tones of the subject, of course, but also the cadences of unfolding oral expression, and regional and idiosyncratic word choices that have become second nature to the speaker rather than being carefully selected to impress or hide from the audience.

A variety of public and arts and culture agencies have utilized the method for acquiring and preserving elderly community members who have experienced contrasting eras, been present through public disasters, or witnessed momentous political and/or social events. Unlike the historian or the journalist, the subject providing the oral history’s content comes to the table with a personal understanding from which the account is told, providing contemporary and future audiences with direct access to how the reported events and observations were experienced.

Why listen to such often arcane and relatively unpolished accounts? How does hearing from a man, past 90 when he was recorded in 1979, talk about his birthplace give 21st century listeners more than just the facts of his reminiscences? What can be understood by listening to the individual California Department of Transportation oral history recordings made within less than a month after the Loma Prieta Earthquake? Whether the history reflects longevity of life and memory, or response to a near encounter with disaster that happened only last month, the sounds themselves of these voices remind us of both our momentary presence in history and the possibility that we may encounter a historically momentous event as it happens.

Intersectionality becomes distinct to audiences listening to oral histories, too. The interview subject is always the center of the oral history, rather than a confirming or disputing partner to an interviewer: they reframe questions offered to ones that are more suited to their experiences and viewpoints. The oral history provided across gender and ethnic lines by Rashidah Abdul-Khabeer, undertaken for the African American AIDS Activism Oral History Project (2012) provides, in under two hours, a wealth of exposure to identity points a single subject contains. To hear this reality also serves the listener as a frank suggestion that the speaker is not unique in owning identifying attributes; none of us is simple.

Digitized audio and web-accessible archives allow listeners deep and broad access to such firsthand accounts. Start the digging with thanks to Hampshire College’s Oral History libguide.