Archives, oral history and oral tradition

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William W. Moss and Peter Mazikana


The post-Second World War period has brought about a significant expansion in the functions and responsibilities of archival institutions and the archivists who manage them. Against a background of stagnant or diminish) resources, archivists have been called upon to accommodate increasingly large volumes of records, to adapt traditional archival practices and principles to new sources of information and record media, and to cope wit rapid technological advances in communications and recordkeeping devices.

The customary archival role of the custodian or keeper of local, state, an central government records has had to be modified and transformed in many ways. This transformation has not been easy, as may be shown by the continuing controversy over the degree of involvement by archivists in the management of current and semi-current records. Archivists in different countries have responded in different ways to the challenges that have arisen. It is not surprising, therefore, that oral tradition and oral history have not received the universal welcome they deserve as legitimate archival endeavours.

There is nothing new in the recording, use and preservation of oral tradition and oral history. Indeed, individuals and institutions have collected, used, and preserved oral sources and have made those materials available to researchers for years. To a large extent, however, this has been done by university departments, specialised research institutions, or archival units set up specifically to deal with oral sources or sound recordings. For archival institutions at the local, state, and national levels, the novelty lies in the extent to which they are being asked to accept the role of custodians and administrators of this material and the extent to which they are even being asked to assume the entirely unfamiliar and often uncomfortable role of participation in the creation of these records. Whatever the pros and cons of such involvement, there is little doubt that oral tradition and oral history have had and will continue to have increasingly significant impact on archival work, and archivists must be prepared to accommodate and master this material. To do so, however, they must have as full and precise an understanding of oral history and oral tradition as they have of other more familiar archival sources.

Oral tradition and oral history share a common oral nature. While it is deceptively easy to propose distinctions between them, it is more difficult to sustain the differences in practice. There is often much similarity in the ways they are collected, processed, stored, and made available to researchers and in the equipment required to record and preserve these materials. In common practice, both those who concentrate on oral history and those who work with oral tradition belong to a common class of oral historians and share many of the same interests, concerns, and objectives, methods and procedures.

Oral traditions are those recollections of the past, orally transmitted and recounted, that arise naturally within and from the dynamics of a culture. They are shared widely throughout the culture by word of mouth even though they may be entrusted to particular people for safekeeping, transmittal, recitation, and narration. They are organic expressions of the identity, purpose, functions, customs, and generational continuity of the culture in which they occur. They happen spontaneously as phenomena of cultural expression. They would exist, and indeed they have existed in the absence of written notes or other more sophisticated recording devices. They are not direct experiences of the narrators, and they must be transmitted by word of mouth to qualify as oral tradition.

Oral history, on the other hand, is usually identified as an activity, a detached and academic process of inquiry into the memories of people who have experienced the recent past directly. This inquiry and the responses it generates are recorded to supplement written records that have been found wanting in some measure for historical analysis. It is a studied, abstract, and analytical practice of historians and other social scientists, and it relies heavily on a recording device, whether manual, mechanical, or electronic. Oral history owes much to the traditions of Western European historiography. It was developed partly to remedy deficiencies in written records, but it has been viewed by many traditional historians as an undisciplined, rebellious, and perhaps even irresponsible child of documentary history. Rebellious or not, oral history necessarily presumes an existing context of written records, from which prior research identifies major lacunae that may' be filled through the recording of testimony by participants and witnesses to the events in question. The product of oral history is subject to textual criticism and content analysis by the same standards that are applied by historians to written documents.

Although oral traditions may be collected as an academic exercise and subsumed under the general umbrella of oral history, in their very nature they have an inherent additional social value in contributing to the social cohesion, dynamic evolution, and durability of the culture they represent. Oral traditions are therefore changed in the very act of recording from dynamic and developing or evolving self-consciousness into fixed and static "snapshots" of the culture at one point in its development. They become abstracted from the process that creates and nurtures them, and in this they necessarily become outdated very rapidly.

Oral traditions are to a large extent identified with societies lacking a written tradition, but they also exist in highly literate societies, even those with impressive archives of written records. Their most important archival function, however, has been in documenting those societies without written records, throwing light on the historical, social, economic, and cultural development of such societies. In many cases it has been the only way in which the past of a society could be reconstructed and recorded in written form for archival preservation.

Oral history became necessary, at least in part, because many historians came to believe that written records were excessively limited to the documentation of a ruling government or elite class, or to a dominant national function such as religion or law. Thus, much social history went unrecorded or was recorded incidental to other purposes which diminished the usefulness of the record for social history. Whole classes of people were poorly represented in great national annals, and the perspective reflected in those annals tended to be highly legalistic, formal, and bureaucratic. Modern historians are seeking to remedy this deficiency in a variety of ways, among them the collection of oral history and oral tradition. Modern institutions, whether commercial, governmental, religious, or social, have come to discover a need for documenting and sharing information beyond the strict confines of records of official transactions. Furthermore, oral history, even at its most studied and academic levels, has begun to discover the importance and use of mythology to rationalism even the most highly sophisticated and deterministic activities of a modern technological society. As in the case of oral traditions, the relationship of a traditional perspective to the social dynamic may be as significant as the evidential value of the contents of oral history for documentation of historical phenomena.

Archives require durable records removed from the direct effect of continuing social development. Archivists must understand that in acquiring oral sources they are participating in a process of transformation from socially dynamic and evolving sources to static and durable records of segments of that process. For the archivist, the distinctions between oral tradition and oral history are important primarily in understanding the provenance of each, and perhaps in developing appraisal criteria for deciding the durability of the value of each for evidential, administrative, or general information needs. The forms in which the archivist encounters them are often remarkably similar, and the distinctions between them are often unimportant in archival management of the physical property of the records once created and deposited in the archives. Handwritten or typed notes and transcripts, magnetic audiotapes, sound motion picture films, and videotapes all may contain oral source records, but the most common for both oral tradition and oral history is magnetic audiotape, often but not necessarily accompanied by a written transcript or schedule of contents of the tape. Each form may record one, two, or several participants, although multiple participants beyond the inquirer-respondent dialogue form in oral history are less common. The inquirer or collector role in recordings of oral tradition is commonly much more reserved, obscure, and self-effacing than in the oral history interview, where the interviewer must act as a catalyst to prompt and challenge the memory of the narrator. It is crucially important, however, for both oral history and for oral tradition, that the archivist understand that what is given to the archives is a record of an interview or the record of a recounting of an oral tradition; it is not a record of or from the past about which the subject speaks, although it may be an attempt to define or recreate that past. It is a record of an event (an interview, a story-telling, the recitation of an epic poem, etc.) that took place in the recent past, not a surviving relic of that more distant past of which the narrator speaks, even if the information supplied is the only surviving evidence of that past known to exist.


In concern for the integrity of the practice of oral history, and mindful of its responsibilities in that regard, the Oral History Association of the United States of America, after much thought and deliberation, developed two sets of guidelines that may prove helpful to others working in oral history. These guidelines are offered in this study as examples of criteria that can be developed to encourage collectors and administrators to improve the quality and reliability of the oral sources and their administration, and thereby make them more valuable to the writing of history. They are not offered as absolutes designed to fit every situation, and each archivist must make appropriate adjustments to his own situation.

The first set of guidelines very broadly establishes areas of concern and values for those broad areas. The second set of guidelines is more detailed and precise and was designed for comprehensive and thorough analysis, appraisal, and evaluation of oral history programmes, projects, and products.

11.1 Goals and Guidelines of the Oral History Association

The Oral History Association recognises oral history as a method of gathering and preserving historical information in spoken form and encourages those who produce and use oral history to recognise certain principles, rights, and obligations for the creation of source material that is authentic, useful, and reliable.

Guidelines for the Interviewee

The interviewee should be informed of the purposes and procedures of oral history in general and of the particular project to which contribution is being made. In recognition of the importance of oral history to an understanding of the past and in recognition of the costs and effort involved, the interviewee should strive to impart candid information of lasting value. The interviewee should be aware of the mutual rights involved in oral history, such as editing and seal privileges, literary rights, prior use, fiduciary relationships, royalties, and determination of the disposition of all forms of the record and extent of dissemination and use. Preferences of the person interviewed and any prior agreements should govern the conduct of the oral history process, and these preferences and agreements should be carefully documented for the record.

Guidelines for the interviewer

Interviewers should guard against possible social injury to or exploitation of interviewees and should conduct interviews with respect for human dignity. Each interviewee should be selected on the basis of demonstrable potential for imparting information of lasting value. The interviewer should strive to prompt informative dialogue through challenging and perceptive inquiry, should be grounded in the background and experiences of the person being interviewed, and, if possible, should review the sources related to the interviewee before conducting the interview. Interviewers should extend the inquiry beyond their immediate needs to make each interview as complete as possible for the benefit of others, and should, whenever possible, place the material in a depository where it will be available for general research. The interviewer should inform the interviewee of the planned conduct of the oral history process and develop mutual expectations of rights connected thereto, including editing, mutual seal privileges, literary rights, prior use, fiduciary relationships, royalties, rights to determine the disposition of all forms of the record, and the extent of dissemination and use. Interviews should be conducted in a spirit of objectivity, candor, and integrity, and in keeping with common understandings, purposes, and stipulations mutually arrived at by all parties. The interviewer shall not violate and will protect the seal on any information considered confidential by the interviewee, whether imparted on tape as part of the interview or conveyed separately from the interview.

Guidelines for Sponsoring Institutions

Subject to conditions prescribed by interviewees, it is an obligation of sponsoring institutions (or individual collectors) to prepare and preserve easily useable records; to keep careful records of all creation and processing of each interview; to identify, index, and catalogue all interviews; and, when open to research, to make their existence known. Interviewers should be selected on the basis of professional competence and interviewing skill. Interviewers should be carefully matched to interviewees. Institutions should keep both interviewees and interviewers aware of the importance of the above guidelines for the successful production and use of oral history sources.

11.2 Oral History Evaluation Guidelines

The Oral History Association, in furtherance of its goals and guidelines and in support of its evaluation service, has developed guidelines for the use of those called upon to evaluate existing or proposed programmes and projects. The outline may also be used by individuals to test their own procedures and by funding agencies to appraise proposals.

Recognising that the ultimate measure of oral history lies in its reliability as a source for historical understanding, the Association submits that conscientious consideration of every step in its creation is a professional obligation, and that careful attention to the factors raised in the following outline substantially increases the probability of enduring value.

Therefore, the Association has developed the following guidelines to be used in the evaluation of programmes and projects producing oral history sources and to provide standards for new and established programmes. The text is intended to suggest lines of inquiry by evaluators, who should, however, recognise the need for flexibility in applying them to specific projects. The guidelines will be subject to continuing review by the Oral History Association.

Programme/Project Guidelines Purposes and Objectives

Are the purposes clearly set forth? How realistic are they? What factors demonstrate a significant need for this project? What is the research design? How clear and realistic is it? Are the terms, conditions and objectives of funding clearly made known to allow the user of the interviews to judge the potential effect of such funding on the scholarly integrity of the project? Is the allocation of funds adequate to allow the project goals to be accomplished? How do institutional relationships affect the purposes and objectives?

Selection of Interviewers and Interviewees

In what way are the interviewers and interviewees appropriate (or inappropriate) to the purposes and objectives? What are the significant omissions, and why were the omitted?

Records and Provenance

What are the policies and provisions for maintaining a record of provenance of interviews?
Are they adequate?
What can be done to improve them?
How are records, policies and procedures made known to interviewers, interviewees, staff, and users?
How does the system of records enhance the usefulness of the interviews and safeguard the rights of those involved?

Availability of Materials

How accurate and specific is the publicising of the interviews?
How is information about interviews directed to likely users?
How have the interviews been used?

Finding Aids

What is the overall design for finding aids?
Are the finding aids adequate and appropriate?
How available are the finding aids to users?

Management, Qualifications, and Training

How effective is the management of the programme/project?
What provisions are there for supervision and staff review?
What are the qualifications for staff positions?
What are the provisions for systematic and effective training?
What improvements could be made in the management of the programme/project?

Ethical/Legal Guidelines

What policies and procedures assure that each interviewee is made fully aware of:

- his/her rights and interests?
- the purposes of the programme/project?
- the various stages of the interviewing and transcribing process and his/her responsibilities in that process?
- the eventual deposit of the interview(s) in a suitable repository?
- the possible uses to which the material may be put?

What policies and procedures assure that each interviewer is fully aware of:

- his/her rights and interests?
- his/her ethical and legal responsibilities to the interviewee?
- his/her ethical and legal responsibilities to the programme/project?

How does the programme/project secure a release from the interviewer? What policies and procedures assure that for each interviewee an adequate deed of gift or formal contract transfer rights, title, and interest in both tape(s) and transcript(s) to an administering authority?

In lieu of a deed or gift or contract, what other evidence of intent does the programme/project rely on? Is it legally adequate? How does the programme/project reflect responsible adherence to ethical and legal standards? Specifically:

- How has the staff been impressed with the need for confidentiality of the interview content until the time of release?
- How has the staff been impressed with the need to conduct interviews in a spirit of mutual respect and with consideration for the interests of the interviewees?
- How does the programme/project demonstrate its ability to carry out the provisions of legal agreements and to protect the tape(s) and transcript(s) from unethical use?
- What steps are taken to assure that the staff recognises its responsibilities to gather accurate material, to process it as quickly as possible, and to make it available for use to the widest possible audience?

Tape/Transcript Guidelines

Information About the Participants

Are the names of both interviewer and interviewee clearly indicated on the tape/abstract/transcript and in catalogue materials? Is there adequate biographical information about both interviewer and interviewee? Where can these be found?

Interview Information

Are the tapes, transcripts, time indices, abstracts, and other material presented for use identified as to the programme/project of which they are a part?

Are the date and place of interview indicated on tape, transcript, time index, abstract, and in appropriate catalogue material? Are there interviewer's statements about the preparation for or circumstances of the interview(s)? Where? Are they generally available to researchers? How are the rights of the interviewees protected against the improper use of such commentaries? Are there records of contracts between the programme and the interviewee? How detailed are they? Are they available to researchers? If so, with what safeguards for individual rights and privacy?

Interview Tape Information

Is the complete master tape preserved? Are there one or more duplicate copies?
If the original or any duplicate has been edited, rearranged, cut, or spliced in any way, is there a record of that action, including by whom and for what purposes the action was taken?
Do the tape label and appropriate catalogue materials show the recording speed, level, and length of the interview?
Has the programme/project used recording equipment and tapes which are appropriate to the purposes of the work and use of the material?
Are the recordings of good quality? How could they be improved?
In the absence of transcripts, are there suitable finding aids to give users access to information on tapes? What form do they take?
Is there a record of who prepares these finding aids?
Are researchers permitted to listen to tapes? Are there any restrictions on the use of tapes?

Interview Transcript Information

Is the transcript an accurate record of the tape?
Is a careful record kept of each step of processing the transcript, including who transcribed, audited, edited, retyped, and proofread the transcript in final copy?
Are the nature and extent of changes in the transcript from the original tape made known to the user?
What finding aids have been prepared for the transcript? Are they suitable and adequate? How could they be improved?
Are there any restrictions on access to or use of the transcripts?
Are they clearly noted?
Are there any photo materials or other supporting documents for the interview? Do they enhance and supplement the text?

Interview Content Guidelines

Does the content of each interview and the cumulative content of the whole collection contribute to accomplishing the objectives of the programme/project?

In what particulars do the interview and/or collection appear to succeed or fall short?
In what way does the programme/project contribute to historical understanding?
In what particulars does each interview or the whole collection succeed or fall short of such contribution?
To what extent does the material add fresh information, fill gaps in the existing record, and/or provide fresh insights and perspectives?
To what extent is the information reliable and valid? Is it eye-witness or hearsay testimony? How well and in what manner does it meet internal and external tests of corroboration, consistency, and explication of contradictions?
What is the relationship of the interview information to existing documentation and historiography?
How does the texture of the interview impart detail, richness, and flavour to the historical record?
What is the basic nature of the information contributed? Is it facts, perceptions, interpretations, judgments, or attitudes, and how does each contribute to understanding?
Are the scope and volume, and where appropriate the representativeness of the population interviewed. appropriate and sufficient to the purpose? Is there enough testimony to validate the evidence without passing the point of diminishing returns? How appropriate is the quantity to the purpose of the study? Is there a good representative sample of the population represented in the interviews?
How do the form and structure of the interviews contribute to make the content information understandable.

Interview Conduct Guidelines Use of Other Sources

Is the oral history technique the best means of acquiring the information? If not, what other sources exist? Has the interviewer used them, and has he/she sought to preserve them if necessary? Has the interviewer made an effort to consult other relevant oral histories? Is the interview technique of value in supplementing existing sources?

Historical Contribution

Does the interviewer pursue the inquiry with historical integrity? Do other purposes being served by the interview enrich or diminish quality? What does the interview contribute to the larger context of historical knowledge and understanding?

Interviewer Preparation

Is the interviewer well-informed about the subjects under discussion?
Are the primary and secondary sources used in preparation for the interview adequate?

Interviewee Selection and Orientation

Does the interviewee seem appropriate to the subjects discussed? Does the interviewee understand and respond to the interview purposes? Has the interviewee prepared for the interview and assisted in the process?

Interviewer-Interviewee Relations

Do interviewer and interviewee motivate each other toward interview objectives?

Is there a balance of empathy and analytical judgment in the interview?

Adaptive Skills

In what ways does the interview show that the interviewer has used skills appropriate to:

- the interviewee's condition (health, memory, mental alertness, ability to communicate, time schedule, etc.)?
- the interview conditions (disruptions and interruptions, equipment problems, extraneous participants, etc.)?


What evidence is there that the interviewer has:

- thoroughly explored pertinent lines of thought
- followed up significant clues?
- made an effort to identify sources of information?
- employed critical challenge where needed?


Do the biases of the interviewer interfere with or influence the responses of the interviewee? What information is available that may inform users of any prior or separate relationship of the interviewer to the interviewee?

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