Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Oral History and Public Memory

While archivists’ bookshelves are loaded with practical manuals on oral history practice, the mainstream archival literature includes a modicum of analysis about the connection of oral history to archival work and the archival mission. There also have been few studies about oral history, while we possess many basic practice primers. Paula Hamilton and Linda Shopes, eds., Oral History and Public Memories (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008) is a different kind of contribution to the oral history literature. As the editors suggest, “this book . . . represents an effort to link the often highly particular, individualized work of oral history with broader public, civic, or communal memories within the context of recent work in memory studies” (p. xiii).

Oral History and Public Memories includes studies on the United States, Australia, Canada, Columbia, Greece, Kosovo, New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa, and Turkey –for a truly international spectrum of studies. The essays cluster about three themes: creating heritage (state-sanctioned projects), recreating identity and community (less formal local efforts), and making change (oral history as an “activist practice”). The editors provide a sense of how their volume differs from most volumes on oral history: “What distinguishes these chapters from much work in oral history is their focus not on the experiences of individual narrators, but on the broader cultural meanings of oral history narratives” (p. xiv).

This is a volume that helps provide a sense of the power and influence of conducting oral histories. Kevin Blackburn, looking at oral history in Singapore, notes, for example, that “even the presumably more democratic practice of interviewing ordinary people can be subverted by nationalistic agendas and produce ‘history from above’ – that is, oral history shaped by the desire of the state to mold public memory according to the version of history that it endorses” (p. 44). Maria Nugent, considering the use of oral history in the Aboriginal culture in Australia, notes that “it is productive to interpret these oral histories both for the information they provide that can be used to tell new histories of old places and as a mode of storytelling that enables Aboriginal people to represents themselves not only as the subjects of history, but as the makers of it too” (p. 57). Gail Lee Dubrow, considering the oral history of Japanese Americans, reveals how oral histories show the “active role that oral history can play not only in reshaping public memories but also in advancing social change” (p. 138). These are just examples, but they provide a sense of what the essayists in this volume are seeking to do.

I am not sure the volume is completely successful in relating oral history to public memory scholarship, but this may be more the result of how diverse public memory scholarship has been. I am convinced that archivists can use this volume to consider how oral historians and oral history relate to their own work and mission.