Can Oral History Sources Be Trusted?

By Sharon DeBartolo Carmack

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Some genealogists and historians have discredited the use of oral history, believing that documents provide a more reliable picture of what really happened in the past.

Oral history as a source, however, is no less reliable than any document we might consult. All sources are prone to errors and discrepancies, even those carved in stone. If you’ve traced your ancestors in all censuses for their lifetimes, you know what I’m talking about: Census records have inconsistencies and errors from one enumeration to another.

What to Expect From a Family History Interview

Yes, one person’s version of an event will differ from another’s. My separate interviews of two brothers are a good example: When I asked the first brother if his mother was the emotional type, he responded, “Oh, yes. She cried over everything.” When I asked the same question of the second brother, he responded, “No, she didn’t cry very often.” I had to pause the interview to laugh because the versions were so different. It’s all about a person’s perception. The first brother perceived his mother as being emotional; to the other, she wasn’t. Maybe she let her guard down with one and not with the other. Or maybe the first brother found it so upsetting to see his mother cry that it made a bigger impact on him.

What You Can Take Away From a Family History Interview

Your interview may produce slight discrepancies or glaring conflicts. So what do you do? Newscasters and journalists have to deal with this type of problem every day. For instance, three people can witness the same accident, and each one walks away with a different version of the story. Who’s right? They all are. Likewise, no amount of convincing will make Grandpa change his mind that Aunt Martha’s version is the correct one, so why bother? Do what reporters do: Give multiple versions of the same story (“According to Aunt Martha…” “On the other hand, Grandpa Miller gave his version of the story … “). Then go with the story that most closely corroborates what your documented genealogical sources are telling you.

It’s also true that people’s memories are prone to lapses and inaccuracies. Consider what Alexander Still wrote in a 2001 New York Times article: “Oral sources tell us not just what people did, but what they wanted to do, what they believed they were doing and what they now think they did.” You won’t find the how, what and why in genealogical sources. We get more from oral histories than an eyewitness account that could be accurate or inaccurate; we get themes and personal interpretations of events. Like many historians, we can recognize oral history for what it is and consider its unique value and role in family history — that is, someone’s persona) recollections and interpretations of his or her own experiences.

A version of this article appeared in the February 2004 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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Grandma giving you the cold shoulder? Don’t give up on capturing her oral history — try these five techniques for getting reluctant interviewees to open up.
How do you find people to interview about your family? And when you’ve got them on the line, what’s the best way to breach sensitive subjects? Learn how.
Interested in interviewing someone in your family about the historic events they’ve experienced? Be sure to check out these tips!