Some Reflections on Life Histories, Death, and Crossing between “Two Worlds”

 Collecting oral histories can pose significant challenges in crossing between the public spaces of oral history production and the professional space of the university. Bridging this divide can sometimes feel like an impossible task. It has often led me to feel that I’m moving back and forth between two worlds

When I first started doing this, I was surprised to encounter some distrust of academics. One woman shared a story with me that poignantly captured this. She had participated in an academic project once, but she hadn’t found it to be a very positive experience. When she read about a research project in the paper, she was eager to help, and she mailed some of her prized possessions – diaries and other records of her late aunt’s life – to the person conducting the research. And then she never heard from the researcher again.

She expressed deep hurt and concern over this. What had happened to her late aunt’s things? Was a book ever published? She’d really been looking forward to reading it. A quick search of a university library catalogue revealed that this book had indeed been published years ago; she expressed gratitude when I shared this information with her, opting to purchase the book online. The most important moral of this story for me was that if people were going to freely share their life histories with me, I ought to share my work with them in return.  This was standard protocol at Trent University where I was working on my Master’s thesis at the time, and a question on the ethics form invited participants to indicate if they would like a copy of the work when it was finished.

The positive response was overwhelming. Many people requested a copy, even those who hadn’t participated in the project. Again and again I was asked: Is it done yet? When can we read it? Sharing copies posed a challenge once it was finished; many told me they did not want to spend that much time reading from a computer screen, and not everyone had e-mail addresses. Printing is costly, I explained, and I was obligated to provide a copy to everyone who participated first; after that, I promised to save up money to have extra copies printed for anyone else interested in reading it. Soon after, I received calls informing me that the Retirees’ Chapter of Local 222 and Family Auxiliary 27 of the CAW had passed motions of financial support for the costs of printing my thesis.

I’ve talked to a lot of people who have read my thesis since then, and the feedback has been incredible.  To a certain extent, reviews have been mixed. Some critique that my interpretation leans too far to the left, while others found a left perspective refreshing. Most have suggested that the first part is a tad long-winded or boring, but that the later chapters are much better, especially when I quote the interview material extensively. The message I’ve taken from this is more of their voices, a little less of mine – which I happen to agree is very good advice.

Yet time and again the feedback I receive from academic circles is the exact opposite. Quote the interviews less, cut them down, sum them up. Speak for them, not with them.  The message here is a little less of their voices, a lot more of mine. And this is what historians do, isn’t it? They analyze sources, produce data, and engage in debate with other historians.

But is oral history just another source? No, it is not. These are people, not just texts. A source does not greet you with a smile, welcome you into its home, invite you to make yourself comfortable. It doesn’t ply you with food and drink, laugh, cry, hug you, bare its soul. Sources don’t wait to reveal themselves until they’ve gotten to know and trust you, they don’t ask to read what you’re writing about them, critique the way you’ve presented them, or call you out if you haven’t fairly represented them.  Sources don’t suffer heartache, pain and ill health. Sources don’t die.

I was unprepared for the emotional rollercoaster of oral history when I first set out on this journey. The emotional highs were exhilarating as I got to know people, share with them, and came to care about them. I knew these people had more time behind them than in front of them, but the ramifications of that hadn’t completely sunk in yet. Then I lost Betty Love, and so began the first long plummet down.  The last time I saw her, I was dropping off a transcript of our interview. Of course she welcomed me inside, and we sat and talked. She shared many incredible stories with me that day, as I mentally kicked myself for not bringing along a recorder so I could capture every single word. But there would be other opportunities, I assured myself, lots of conversations we’d have in the future. But first I had a thesis to write! It wasn’t until I was about to drop off a finished copy that I found out Betty Love had died. She’d touched my life in so many ways, not only in the short time we’d spent together, but in the many hours I spent listening to her words, carefully transcribing them, agonizing over how to capture this brilliant personality on paper. I felt like a failure. If I’d just worked a little harder, a little faster, I would have been able to give something back to her, she’d have seen the product of our labour, as she’d requested. I found some solace in learning that the transcript I’d dropped off had been used in her eulogy, but it was cold comfort.

I’ve witnessed death many times since then. It never gets easier. Time doesn’t heal all wounds, it just numbs the pain a little, pushing us to grow and change along the way. I see things more clearly now. When I sit down to listen to a life story, and I’m told with a wry smile that they’ve reached the point in their lives where they now read the paper “back to front,” I’m “in the know.”  I, too, now start with the obituaries when the paper arrives, hoping as I scan the names that I won’t recognize any of them. I have a deeper appreciation of the urgency underlying their words when I’m asked when I’ll be done, when they’ll be able to see what I’ve written. I know too well the truth of their statements when I’m reminded frankly that they won’t be around forever, and that I’d better get on it if they’re going to live to see it.

And here lies my greatest difficulty reconciling these “two worlds.” On the one hand, in the university, it is commonly accepted that your dissertation won’t be widely read, that you are engaging in a conversation with academics first and foremost. Wait for the book, I’m told. Start a side project of public history in your spare time – have two separate conversations, in other words. On the other hand, I have people participating in the project who want to read what I’m writing about them, who want in on the conversation. Do I tell them that there must be two conversations? Should they trust me if one of these is disconnected from, and largely unresponsive to them?

Oral historians have been responding to these and other concerns for some time. But it seems to me that much of this remains concentrated in oral history niches, slow to filter into the larger profession, where oral history is still often considered just another source. But we don’t really live in two worlds; perhaps if we were more open to engaging in a common conversation, we’d find that we all had something to learn from the process.

Some suggestions for further reading:

Steven High, What Can Oral History Teach Us?

Canadian Oral History Blog

Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling

Oral History Forum d’histoire orale

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