Anders Family
David Asbel Anders with
Jim and Tina Smith Anders

US GenWeb Project

Rufus and Florence Hall Owen Family in 1947
Rufus and Florence Hall Owen and children

US GenWeb Archives Project


Transylvania County, NC 

GenWeb Project

NC GenWeb


When Words Aren't Enough: Oral History

 Imagine leaving our complicated modern lives to travel up an old, nearly impassable, mountain dirt road to visit with an aging hunter and farmer and his family with the singular mission to hear and record their stories for future generations. In 1939 A. T. Long did just that when he visited Marson Baynard's home as part of the Federal Writers Project American Life Histories. The life of Marson Baynard became one of thousands of stories in this Work Projects Administration (WPA) effort to employ writers and other artisans hard pressed by the hard times of the Great Depression and difficult economic recovery. Beyond helping launch the careers of many significant literary figures, these WPA interviews have become a valuable resource for historians and other researchers. This project has also become a classic example of the problems associated with documenting and using oral history sources.

The essential difficulty with oral history comes from the reality that living spoken conversations, no matter how treasured, simply do not create a fixed document that can be neatly archived. People and their memories die. When words stop reverberating in the ear, the experience of them is gone forever leaving only echoes of memory. While memories last longer than words, they also fade with health and perspective and time. And everyone has experienced conversations where the following day the realization of what should have been said rises clearly and brightly as the emerging morning sun. Ultimately, the use of oral history as a source, just as any source, requires careful consideration of its reliability by the researcher. However, oral history is unique in that researchers are also frequently the interviewers who convert the living memories to a document that can be archived. This role presents additional challenges and responsibilities.

The first special consideration in documenting and recording oral history is the technology that makes it possible. Oral history from the eighteenth century is simply not available due to technology limitations. Throughout the twentieth century, interviewers and archivists struggled with recording technology. It remains a significant factor in discussions among professional oral historians. In the case of the WPA interviews, the technological problems resemble the long string of events leading to the nearly complete loss of the 1890 Federal Census. Often, memory and notes alone served as the recording media. Other times, interviewers used the bulky yet somewhat portable media of wax cylinders to save these conversations for posterity. For far too long, instead of reformatting the recordings onto new technology, they were stored in an overly warm environment. Heat and wax do not mix well, and the resulting loss is forever. Other technology has come and gone or largely faded away. Metal and vinyl albums. Eight track and reel to reel tapes. In one case significant to Western North Carolina, writer John Parris used wire recordings. These recordings are archived in hopes that eventually a working machine can be located to play the recordings and transfer them to more modern media. In the meantime, questions remain as to whether or not the information recorded on the wires still exists at all or can be retrieved. Currently an increasing movement promotes the use of digital formats for preserving recorded interviews with the hope that using Internet friendly file formats such as .wav will allow continued access. However, the challenge to provide for necessary reformatting remains as the computer industry creates new technology faster than current technology can be integrated into existing oral history projects. Beyond these issues, even the latest recording device cannot help when batteries go dead or the interviewer runs out of tape or disks or forgets to hit the record button. Practicing with even the most basic equipment and having back-up supplies is perhaps the most overlooked but vital part of the interview process.

The only way to guarantee the interview will survive technology changes remains the long hours necessary to transcribe it as soon as possible onto old fashioned paper - or better yet the archival quality kind. While this can never duplicate the inflections and gestures that accompany oral communication, it can preserve a significant part of the information in the event that technology changes too quickly for reformatting. Printed transcripts are also easier to use in locating specific information since they can be quickly skimmed, are ideally indexed, and digital files can be text searched by computer. Realistically, transcription is time consuming, tedious, and creates additional challenges. A good transcription includes everything from the most awe inspiring sentence to bracketed editorial notes identifying background noises such as the ring of a rotary telephone. The WPA interviews were written by artists. The literary flow of many Life Histories is far from the realistic false starts, pauses, and ums that make up real conversation. The literary approach also can add significant biases and interpretations by the interviewer far from the original conversation. The interview of Marson Baynard demonstrates this tendency as A. T. Long's rendition of the interview took on a more fictional tone, casting the family into specific roles that would be appealing and entertaining to an audience. Long also used pseudonyms for the individuals he interviewed. This is a controversial but at times appropriate way to publish interviews. When used, somewhere there should be a record of who is really who such as the real names and their story equivalents presented in the current online account of the Marson Baynard "Up Hominy Creek," interview located on the Library of Congress American Memory Web Page.

Beyond the problems of transcribing an interview without adding poetic license, interviewers must constantly be aware of how their questions and comments and even gestures are influencing the answers themselves. But questions are very much necessary. Before conducting an interview, it is helpful to conduct some background research about a specific topic to know the terminology and processes as well as how the individual to be interviewed is connected to the topic in order to create guiding questions. Beginning with basic questions such as name and birth date helps everyone get used to the interview situation. Having prepared more questions than can possibly be covered provides direction when usually long winded people suddenly have very short answers, especially with a recorder present. While questions help guide the interviewee to cover desired topics, they can also add an external version of history while subtly pressuring the individual to validate that information. The story of Marson Baynard in the American Life Histories does not provide information about what questions were asked. After all, this would seriously distract from the literary approach A. T. Long and other interviewers were working to attain as writers and artists. As a result, current researchers do not know what questions prompted the Baynard family answers and what influence these might have had in eliciting desired but perhaps not entirely accurate responses.

Ultimately oral history reaches beyond technology and transcripts and interviewers - it is about the people being interviewed. The words of the individuals reflect the most significant aspect of the interview, and the most important part of considering how the interview can be used in research. Here, researchers need to consider how the individual was connected to the events reported. If the individual was not actually there but was told about an event, then the interview has moved from recording oral history to recording local tradition. Both are useful as long as the limitations are considered. The temptation to quickly record memories of older individuals can become problematic when the individual has aged beyond the limits of reliable memory. Also, think about how an individual's personal connection to the events may influence the reporting. When the character of Marson Baynard reported church as an excellent place to sleep this opinion probably was not shared by many if not the majority of parishioners.

Finally, oral history has brought its share of lawyers into the research process since A. T. Long and other Federal Writers Project interviewers spoke with individuals from all walks of life in all parts of the country. The latest copyright regulations ensure that anytime words are placed into any kind of fixed media - be it in ink or digital recording, they are immediately protected by copyright. Before publishing interviews in a book, posting them on the Internet, or simply placing them in an archive for public access, the person being interviewed has to sign a copyright release. This is an annoying but ethically and legally necessary formality. Regularly individuals try to donate interviews to archives but cannot since these institutions have to play by the lawyers rules. Legal and other such details can take the fun out of interviews on an individual level. Often, it is helpful to work with an established oral history project that can provide the legal forms, place for permanent storage, and other technical support so that the interview process itself can return to an enjoyable experience. In Transylvania County, the Transylvania County Joint Historic Preservation Commission has an established ongoing oral history project housed at their archives in Brevard, North Carolina.

The evolving field of oral history has moved stories and memories from the simplicity of a warm spring front porch to the boxy dark organization of a library archives. Something gets lost in the act of preservation like the reality that green beans never taste quite right after having been frozen. But these interviews have also become an important part of historic research for twentieth - and twenty-first - century topics. The important thing is to remember the same rules as come into play with any source. No single source or even type of source should be the only part of research. Ultimately, the researcher is responsible for evaluating the reliability and usefulness of a source in context of the subject being studied. Source information should be included so that future researchers can find more information or possibly correct information later on. These citations may be a formal footnote with dates, names of the interviewer and interviewee, and repository with an accession number. Or it could simply be a mention of a "personal conversation with" that too often has to substitute when words are spoken before the electronic stores and archivists and attorneys can enter into the seemingly simple act of documenting history.

 - Linda Hoxit Raxter - originally posted April 29, 2003

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For more information see:

Yow, Valerie Raleigh. Recording Oral History. London: Sage Publications, 1994.

A. T. Long's 1939 account of Marson Baynard, "Up Hominy Creek," and other local WPA American Life Histories can be viewed at the American Memory Project  - from the Library of Congress.

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