Last week, I had the opportunity to help collect the oral histories of senior citizens in Auburn, Alabama, as part of a project for the class Fundamentals of Public History. This was my first experience interviewing someone with whom I was not already familiar, so the prospect was daunting at first. However, despite my previous anticipation, the interview went beyond smoothly and my partner Tracy and I were able to record a valuable interview with our chosen interviewee. Our subject, Mrs. Alice Walker, was delighted to share with us her story and required minimal prompting with the guiding questions in order to tell us about her life in the south. We laughed with her when she shared funny or amusing situations with us, and we frowned and became somber when she revealed harsher, more melancholy stories from her past.
Based upon this interview experience, I believe that oral history is subjective. Moreover, oral histories concerning someone’s lived experiences will often contain emotions, opinions, and personal feelings, so by definition it cannot be purely objective. Omitting the subjective leaves only the facts, the raw data. This arguably makes oral history from someone integral to a situation no different than someone reporting the facts from outside the topic of interest. Much of the value and the difficulty of oral histories stems from its inherent subjectivity.
Regarding the ethics of interviews, the interviewer has the responsibility to their subject to inform them of the subject of the interview, and what is going to be done with their interview material after the interview is conducted. Another of the interviewer’s responsibilities is to make sure the interviewee is aware that they are engaging in the interview of their own free will, and can withdraw at any time if they wish. Interviewers have the utmost responsibility to be honest and respectful of the interview subject, and to allow them to respond to questions as they see fit. It is appropriate to alter this behavior from formal to familiar as a relationship develops between interviewer and narrator, however, the responsibilities of the person conducting the interview should remain in place.
This experience reiterated the significance of the oral histories, as well as the importance of ethical behavior when conducting interviews.