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‘Oral history’ on its way to insignificance? — isn’t ‘online history’ much more relevant for

Posted Dec 28 2009 12:00am

As one of those historians of contemporary science, technology and medicine who have tried my hands and brain extensively on interviewing scientists about the past (see, e.g., here and here), I have pretty ambiguous feelings about ‘oral history’ as a historical specialty in its own right

If you want to study the history of the science, technology and medicine of the near past, you often have no other choice but questioning living actors, since most written, visual and material sources aren’t yet deposited in archives and museums. Speaking with living historical actors also give a special additional flavour to a narrative based on written, visual and material source material. On the other hand, too many ‘oral historians’ use sloppy methodologies, ask questions without being properly prepared, don’t spend enough time to ‘warm up’ to their interviewees, and don’t think of using other kinds of sources to back up the results of their questioning.

Most importantly, the idea of a pure ‘oral history’ as a special kind of history that can stand alone, apparently untouched by ‘non-oral history’, is historiographically questionable. Utilising the speaking voices of historical actors in just one of many methodologies available to historians of the near past, especially in these days, when actors’ voices take so many forms. Today’s actors don’t just talk, they also write articles and books, memoirs and emails, and present themselves in chatrooms and blogposts and a host of other online media. Contemporary history must be based on all these kinds of expressions, not just oral voices. So ‘oral history’ is just one complementary methodology in the contemporary historian’s toolbox, nothing else.

I came to think of this when I read the call for papers for the 2010 annual meeting of the Oral History Association, to be held on the theme ‘Times of Crisis, Times of Change: Human Stories on the Edge of Transformation’. The theme as such is highly relevant, also for historians of science, technology and medicine:

The economic, political and environmental tensions of the present moment are powerfully reshaping our world. People find themselves trapped within global forces, whether economic collapse, war and genocide, forced displacement and relocation, or the threat of environmental disaster. These forces often appear to act upon people in ways beyond their control. At the same time, moments of great crisis engender powerful new visions of change and transformation. Whether as involuntary subjects or active agents, leaders or witnesses, people live and embody these changes. Their memories are critical windows on human struggles, resilience, myth-making, and the political power of stories, forcing a reckoning with the past as well as a reconsideration of the future. Such stories speak to both collective and contested understandings of life on the edge of transformation.

A theme that gives rise to questions like: “How have people struggled and survived in times of crisis? How do people create change and bear witness to it? How do they construct their stories of these moments? In what ways have stories of crisis and change shaped public memories of pivotal historical eras? How do we reconcile contradictory stories of crisis and change?” (read the whole CFP here).

Excellent and very timely questions! But that said, why should historians of the contemporary world limit themselves to using ‘oral history’ methods to study these stories and memories? Why talk with people about these things with a voice-recording machine, when you have millions of written responses to the current political, economic and environmental crisis available on the internet? A single world news article on Huffington Post easily draws several thousands of comments, which bear witness to how people handle the present and the near past.

This fascinating cacaphony (or maybe symphony :-) of millions of daily public reactions — from the ultraright to the far left — to all kinds of current world affairs isn’t oral: it’s produced on keyboards, in writing. It’s a daily testimony to the fact that ‘online history’ and ’social web history’ has become much more relevant for historians interested in the contemporary world than ‘oral history’ — and that it is now a speciality on its way to insignificance.

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