Documenting Women's History: Using Oral History and the Collaborative Process. (Research Files)

By Barber, Katrine; Dilg, Janice | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Documenting Women's History: Using Oral History and the Collaborative Process. (Research Files)


Barber, Katrine, Dilg, Janice, Oregon Historical Quarterly


Without her oral history, Barbara Mackenzie (see page 480) would surface only infrequently in the historical record. Diligent historians would find traces of her--newspaper articles that mentioned her in relation to the post-war Lincoln County Red Cross chapter or the relocation of residents of Celilo Village in the mid-1950s; a birth certificate and enrollment records at St. Mary's Academy and the Oregon Normal School; a photograph of the Motor Corps crew at Benton County--but those documents tell us little about her. Mackenzie's oral history, however, allows us to discover the richness of her life, an opportunity that is possible for the hundreds Oregonians whose oral histories are housed at the Oregon Historical Society Research Library. Oral histories of politicians, prominent business people, activists, and, above all, ordinary Oregonians flesh out the written documents that constitute traditional historical research.

Oral histories are not without their challenges, however, and must be used with care. Memory, as many oral historians have pointed out, is slippery and malleable and can be manipulated in a way that is similar to but also different from the written record. Many of the experiences recounted in oral histories are difficult to verify--the reactions to national or regional events remembered after several years, for example, and the descriptions of motivation or recollections of conversations. Nonetheless, weaving traditional and oral history sources into a single narrative can enhance both sources immeasurably. The following essays examine the ways in which our understanding of historical events are enhanced by combining oral and written sources and the benefits of collaboration inherent in gathering oral histories. Katrine Barber's essay looks at the role of collaboration in conducting interviews with Barbara Mackenzie and how she extended that collaborative perspective to writing an article. Janice Dilg's essay recounts the specific process of researching and writing the article on Barbara Mackenzie's life, but she also explores how traditional written records and the newer methodology of oral history compliment one an-other and result in a richer, fuller accounting of one woman's life and a broader understanding of our collective historical legacy.

Bringing Collaboration to the Center of Historical Methodology

by Katrine Barber

I begin each of my oral history courses by telling students that interviews are gifts they receive from their narrators. Narrators are not like the books they are used to using; they cannot be opened to a particular page, the information skimmed only to be shut and put back on the shelf. It seems obvious to point this out, but it is not unusual for students to report how interviewing someone is different from any other information-gathering they have ever done. The relationships my students develop with their narrators are brief but not superficial. One of my students, for example, was interviewed extensively by his narrator and his wife and then invited to dinner. I have been hugged by people I have interviewed for an hour and known for fewer than two. Collecting an oral history is inherently collaborative; it is based on the narrator's trust that the interviewer will listen carefully and not intentionally misinterpret what was said and that the interviewer will care about and for the narrator's history. It consists of a nuanced and complicated relationship between interviewer and narrator.

I met Barbara Mackenzie in 1999 when I went to her home near Milwaukie, Oregon, to interview her about the work she had done on behalf of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to relocated Indians at Celilo Village in the 1950s. Just months before, I had completed my dissertation on the social consequences of the building of The Dalles Dam, and I had consulted the papers Barbara Mackenzie had donated to the Oregon Historical Society. My dissertation advisor had met one of Mackenzie's relatives and had told me she would be receptive to being interviewed. …

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