Thoughts on Pursuing a Career in Oral History

Jacob Horton '14 is an OHMA graduate and intern with the Nantucket Historical Association's library. In this post, he reflects on careers in the field of oral history.

I’ve spent eight months following the OHMA program working in three consecutive internships with the Nantucket Historical Association’s library. The initial duties were clear: draw condensed narratives from oral histories for use in an exhibit. Extensions to the internship entailed new collection efforts, more processing, cultivating local volunteers, organizing the existing oral history products of the archive. The work seems ever incomplete and perpetually breeds new thoughts.

My graduate degree implies to others less often that I am a wise specialist and more often that I am a qualified generalist. Becoming a good team player took priority but nonetheless I have often been called upon to speak about my field of specialization.  For oral history – and likely with other fields – staying sharp can be tricky not only because most of my time is spent blending in, but because oral history is a complex field. I see three archetypes of specialization supporting that basic work of the long-form interview; the archivist, the analyst, and the advisor.

The archivist’s work involves preserving and preparing interviews for future use: transcription, developing supporting catalogue materials, and developing strategies for better accessibility are common tasks. This work is especially important to general libraries because oral history tends to belong in at least two worlds, the recorded and transcribed document. This tends to create a specialized corner within an archive.

The analyst, alternatively, is focused on transmutation: transforming, translating, and interpreting interviews into informative, creative, or academic products. The previously mentioned exhibition, New Voices, New Arrivals (currently on display in the Nantucket Whaling Museum), is an example of an analytic treatment of oral histories. My superiors and I brought our editorial voices to bear on the interview documents, in this case with the goal of highlighting a few stories from the sometimes obscured history of the island’s non-white, or non-hegemonic populations.

I sometimes think of the archival and analytic products through a food analogy. It is the archivist that makes milk and the analyst that makes cheese. Certainly these archetypes are not mutually exclusive, but time is such that choosing one action is a sacrifice of another. Oral history work is patient and requires resources. Why, then, might someone invest in it?

Oral history interviewing is itself a rewarding activity, a reality that, in my experience, gives some benefactors pause. Interested communities may not embrace the involved and focused efforts of either the archivist or the analyst but they do want to talk, listen, discover, and connect with one another. Why, then, pay a specialist? It is the advisor, pedagogue of process and skill, who readily addresses situations such as this.

The field of oral history is built on the cooperation of these three archetypes. The presence of oral history documents allows analysis, the dissemination of analysis provides teaching models, and the models generate interest. Collection alone is good and valuable but the intrinsic potential of such work seems to require brighter illumination. I think this would be best aided through public work. OHMA students take note: there is no shame in explicating and illuminating the field work of others. How, then, do we do that? I offer a few ideas here which are not particularly revolutionary but may help spur creative thought.

I’d like to see oral history more explicitly linked to the creation of historical works. Alessandro Portelli showed us how the vacillation of human perception against real events lends insight into how the past is used in the present. It is also important for us to produce historical narratives that exploit this value. It is the historian’s job to sort out the most plausible timeline of events and then to overlay compelling causal narratives. It is through narrative that we instill and draw meaning from the passage of time. Thus oral histories highlight how people interpret the events through which they pass. Oral histories offer compelling evidence for historical interpretations and I would like to see the work overtly demonstrated. 

Condensed into digestible, evocative patterns, personal narrative is a powerful method for amplifying the voices of narrators. There are few means of empathetic communication on par with it, so apart from history, we need to pursue compelling transmutations. Analysis with a distinct purpose, such as activism, and with suggestive purpose, such as expressive art, can underline their own legitimacy by drawing on on oral history sources in order to gain a footing in lived, human experience.

We also need to continue pushing into social science. Big questions that broadly address human behavior are entwined with personal narrative. How do we measure them in a compelling and systematic manner? Peter Bearman’s work with narrative serves as an example, eliciting compelling, evidence based, and generalized meaning from groups of narrative documents. Such treatments may appear to run counter to the inherent individuality featured in oral history but making source documents available, as an archivist would, preserves the distinct voice and simultaneously provides the raw material. This brings us again, however, to the intersection of production and time available.

“Harvard undergraduates believe that inventing a job is better than finding a job,” President Larry Summers advises the hapless, barking Winkelvoss twins in The Social Network. The sentiment echoes with me, especially when I grow impatient with the job search. We must cultivate an attitude of possibility if we are to commit to oral history. I have no answers regarding benefactors. Might it serve you well to cultivate an entrepreneurial sense of self-promotion? Yes it might. Is such an endeavor itself a substantial investment in time and creativity? Yes and yes. Fortunately, I find that oral history work cultivates a sense of patience in its practitioners. Perhaps such intrinsic rewards can prepare us for a career that may often depend on identifying and developing unexpected opportunities. No matter which archetype you find yourself drawn toward, there will always be potential for new work as long as people draw meaning through narrative.