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In hindsight: Some critics have insisted that a veterans’ oral history project gives veterans free reign to misrepresent their military service. But these arguments fail to grasp the essence of oral history.

Screenshot of a Fox News video story and caption on Facebook. The video features 72-year-old U.S. Navy veteran John Garofalo. Garofalo lied about his military service in Vietnam, sparking criticism from other veterans. Screenshot courtesy NavyTimes.com.
The Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress is the nation’s largest oral history project. It currently has more than 100,000 stories of America’s war veterans.

“History” is not simply stuff that happened in the past. And “oral history” is not simply stuff that people say on tape or camera.

How oral history differs from a recorded conversation is that it now has a well-tested methodology. Over time, oral historians developed standards and best practices for conducting interviews, particularly with people who have experienced episodes of trauma, such as veterans or oppressed populations. In addition, oral historians continually consider the ethics of oral history — both the collection of people’s life stories and how to best make them accessible to others in a responsible manner. Increasingly, oral historians also must tackle the management, care, long-term preservation and digitization of oral history collections, which can range from a few dozen video tapes to thousands of interviews on audio cassette, video cassette, Hi-8, Betamax, digital video and HD. There is a national Oral History Association that develops these principles and best practices, as well as dozens of regional and local oral history organizations that refine them and put them into practice. You might say there is more to oral history than meets the eye (or ear).

The process, and not solely the content, is what makes an oral history.

Should a veteran be untruthful during an oral history interview — a rare occurrence, but one that does happen — it does not invalidate the entire exercise. Oral history (as a methodology) does not exist in disciplinary isolation. One oral history interview does not the historical record make. History — the discipline from which oral history stems — follows the same rules: one source does not constitute the entirety of the story. By following professional standards, practitioners of oral history create a primary source that subsequent historians can listen to, analyze, study, interpret, and situate within larger contexts. While memories may be flawed — and yes, on occasions people do fib or outright lie — the process, and not solely the content, is what makes an oral history.



The official blog of the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest at Villanova University

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Jason Steinhauer

Writing a book about history on the Internet. Host of the History Club on Clubhouse.