The Alternative Historian

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Thoughts, Ideas, and Other Musings by an Alternative Historian

Oral History Association Conference Wrap Up

The Oral History Association conference in Long Beach, California taught me many things. One of them is that attending a conference takes stamina. Five days of intense listening, schmoozing, chatting, friend making, paradigm shifting, and skills boosting requires quite a bit of energy. Although I got home early Monday morning, I'm only now beginning to feel like myself.

During the plenary, Oral History, Now (And Tomorrow), one of the speakers talked about professionalization of the field. She posed a question about how oral historians could use our "credentials to shape public discourse." Frankly, this bothered me. Oral history has a dedication to democratic principles, the amplification of those voices not usually heard. What if we don't have the right credentials? Do we get to participate in shaping public discourse? How can we have a commitment to democracy but also imply that only some get to shape conversations that impact others? I don't think we can.

There is a lot of baggage wrapped in the idea of professionalism. Usually it's used as a method of separating one's work from others in a manner that degrades the other. It implies a difference in skill level and even mental capacity. In short, professionals use their brains and others use their hands. I don't buy it. I also think it's unnecessary. 

Oral history is a craft. A craft is something that anyone can do, but takes time and discipline to master. Anyone can work with wood, but just because I've used a hammer a few times, and even got paid for it, doesn't make me a carpenter. It certainly doesn't make me a master carpenter. Viewing oral history as a craft allows us to recognize and honor the dedication it takes to continuously improve in the field and show differences with those who do similar work but not with the same dedication to improving standards without dismissing or degrading that work. If your toilet explodes, do you want someone with a passing knowledge of plumbing or someone who has been doing it well for years?

Of course there are ways to recognize people's dedication to the field. When the toilet explodes, I'll probably call a licensed plumber. But there is no license for oral history, and there shouldn't be. Oral historians shouldn't try to be plumbers, we should try to be writers. Writing is a craft. Anyone can do it, most people aren't great at it. A few spend years honing their skills and perfecting their ability. It's true that writing does not get the respect it deserves, especially from those who look to hire writers at no pay (e.g. Huffington Post). If oral historians become more like plumbers, we may get paid more. But we would also lose a level of accessibility that is necessary for the field to thrive.

The flip side to my argument is the need to improve the craft. I understand the plenary speaker's main point: there needs to be a way to keep improving standards. Today every phone is a potential oral history device, but that doesn't mean everyone who records something on their phone is doing oral history. I don't think it's a good use of time to try and license everyone with a cell phone who wants to record something. Rather, let's focus on creating space were we can perfect the craft. My five days in Long Beach showed me that the OHA and the conference is such a place. Unfortunately, there is no state or regional oral history association where I live. I'd rather spend my time building such a space than worrying about credentials.

This is just one of the many thoughts and questions that came up for me during the conference. I hope to use this space on the site to explore more, as well as spread some information that I found. Here's a short preview of some topics I'm hoping to cover. If you have thoughts or opinions, email me and we can discuss.

Things to think about:

  • The attractions and challenges of oral history to the introvert.
  • Oral history and capacity building for community-based organizations.
  • Listening events as an integral part of the oral history project.
  • The confluence between oral history and community-engagement skills.