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ACLS News

Focus on the Oral History Association

8/21/2014

ACLS is pleased to inaugurate a series entitled Focus on Member Societies with a submission from its newest member, the Oral History Association. Here Clifford Kuhn, executive director of the OHA, offers a brief description of the development of the field, the services the association provides its members, and specific initiatives now underway. For more information on the OHA, visit www.oralhistory.org.

The Oral History Association

OralHistoryAssnIn everyday parlance, the term “oral history” has multiple connotations. Most commonly, it refers to personal experience stories about the past. Frequently it suggests a celebration of the ordinary, an authenticity, and a strong emotional connection between story tellers and their audiences, as in the case of the StoryCorps phenomenon.  

For scholars, however, the term generally contains a more precise meaning. Oral history is above all else an interview, an exchange between two parties, one of whom asks questions and one of whom answers them. Oral history is recorded, preserved, and made accessible to others. Oral history interviewing is historical in nature, seeking information about and insights into the past from the perspective of the narrator. Oral history recognizes an element of subjectivity; interviews constitute a personal construction of the past, not merely the itemizing of what happened. Finally, an oral history interview is not a casual conversation, but rather a purposeful exchange that seeks to shed light on the past in a significant manner.

Since 1966, the Oral History Association has served as the principal membership organization for scholars and other practitioners interested in collecting, preserving, presenting, and interpreting oral history. What does this mean? Its regular activities include holding an annual meeting, where presentations include critiques and descriptions of research, evaluations of methodology, and discussions of curriculum, professional ethics and emergent technologies, as well as an extensive workshop program. OHA also sponsors a publishing program whose centerpiece is the semi-annual Oral History Review. Reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of oral history and the international scope of the field, OHR includes articles grounded in high-quality research and that offer new insight into oral history practice, methodology, theory, and pedagogy.

Increasingly the OHR has encouraged authors to include multi-media features in their submissions, where sound is not ancillary but actually itself embedded in an article’s argument. In other ways, too, the OHA has increasingly joined the digital revolution, a development which has impacted all aspects of oral history, from the collection, preservation, and indexing of oral history interviews, to their presentation and interpretation in diverse formats, to new ethical and legal matters. Along with the American Folklore Society, the OHA recently was a partner in the “Oral History in the Digital Age” initiative (OHDA), funded by an Institute for Library and Museum Services national leadership grant in an effort to recommend standards and best practices in digital oral history. The resultant online collection of some 75 essays written by experts in the field addresses all aspects of the oral history process, including technical and ethical issues as well as how to “think digitally,” often through case studies of exemplary work.

Indeed, if there has existed an OHA mantra since its inception, it is “best practices, best practices, best practices” wherever oral history is conducted, both within and outside the academy. In 1979, prompted by the NEH and other funding agencies that wanted a clear set of standards against which to assess proposals, the OHA produced a comprehensive set of Evaluation Guidelines, identifying issues involved in planning, conducting, processing, and preserving oral history interviews. Over the subsequent decades, the guidelines—now called “Principles and Best Practices”—have evolved, reflecting changing technology as well as greater sensitivity to the dynamics of the interview itself and to the ways oral history interviews are used for a variety of purposes in multiple settings.

Over the past year alone, this concern with best practices has animated a number of OHA activities. In conjunction with History®, formerly the History Channel, OHA developed a version of the Principles and Best Practices aimed at K-12 teachers and students. OHA has been working closely with the Federation of State Humanities Councils and individual state councils to upgrade oral history practice at the grassroots level. And through a number of outlets, OHA has closely worked with professional archivists’ associations to foster awareness and appreciation about numerous technological, procedural, and ethical and legal matters.

Of particular note was OHA’s response to developments this spring concerning the Belfast Project of Boston College, where oral history interviews conducted with the promise of confidentiality were subpoenaed and eventually released, with serious consequences. While the circumstances of the case were unfortunate, it offered an opportunity to foster dialogue and sensitivity around a host of complicated issues, and to encourage best practices in the future.  And the OHA’s statement in response received widespread attention within scholarly circles, the media, and elsewhere.

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