OHC Director’s Column, September 2018

How Soon is Now?

Martin Meeker, @MartinDMeeker

Charles B. Faulhaber Director

Recently I was greeted with the unfortunate news that one of my narrators had passed away. My sadness was tempered by the fact that this man, Ed Howden, lived a very long life (he died just shy of 100 years) that was filled with many good accomplishments. He was a stalwart advocate of civil rights from his years heading up the Council for Civic Unity in 1940s and 50s San Francisco through his service as the first staff director of the California Fair Employment Practices Commission in the 1950s and 60s, and later, while working for the US Department of Justice.

There was plenty to talk about when I interviewed him in late 2016 and early 2017. But, by that time he was in his late 90s and many of the events we discussed had happened decades earlier. This experience got me thinking deeply about the “when” of oral history interviewing: when is the optimal time to interview someone? Is there a point when the time has passed?

First off, I feel it important to say I was honored to have the opportunity to interview Howden and, if you read his transcript, I’m sure you’ll agree that it is packed full of fascinating insights and first person accounts of transformative moments and trends in California. But there are also moments of forgetfulness and lack of precision, which was understandable. I had originally invited Howden for an interview in 2005, shortly after I arrived at Berkeley and having been awarded a small grant for a project about human rights commissions. Howden, as it turns out, was caring for his ailing wife at the time, so the interview was delayed by over 10 years. How would the interview have been different had I got to interview him then, or even years before? Howden was 97 when we began our recordings, and his was a valuable interview, I think.

Conversely, is an individual ever “too young” to be interviewed? I know of one project in which oral historians interviewed children, which must have been interesting! While I doubt the OHC will take on that demographic anytime soon, I have interviewed people substantially younger than me (I’m on the mature side of my 40s) and while a long (12+ hour) life history might better be done down the road, all of those interviews were interesting and strong on detail. What is potentially missing in terms of long range historical perspective is compensated for by quickness of recollection, ease with specifics, and strength in accuracy. Those interviews were shorter (typically 2 hours) and highly focused, but I think that they will prove exceedingly useful for scholars and others who are looking for more factual accounts on the topics at hand.

So, there may be no firm rule of thumb on the matter. If you are about to embark on a project in which you anticipate interviewing people of a certain age, it is a good idea to inform yourself of the potential limitations you could encounter on either end of the spectrum. If you plan on asking questions about events decades in the past, know that your narrator might remember little or misremember specifics: know that you’ll get a present perspective on past events, informed by decades of life experience. Also be aware of the potential for cognitive issues to crop up that, in extreme circumstances, might result in confusion, frustration, or other difficult moments for the narrator. Take care to recognize these signs and slow or end the interview if necessary. Memory is a fleeting thing.

We practice a pretty rigorous version of oral history at Berkeley, asking often probing questions and hitting back with follow-up questions that require additional reflective thought. This kind of intense interviewing might not be appropriate for some potential narrators because of health, age, or a combination thereof. On occasion, we turn down an oral history opportunity and instead recommend that the individual participate in a life-review interview: a type of interview best done by someone who knows the narrator well and gently guides that person through stories that they have told before. Oral historians, like other researchers who work with “human subjects,” are obliged to “do no harm” when going about their work.

Several interesting oral history projects have shown that our memories of events change, modulate, or even disappear not solely because of the wear and tear of time or illness but because we think anew about old events and we tend rewrite our own interpretations of things if not the very facts period. Given how we create and recreate memory as we live, maybe the “when” question doesn’t matter too much? This is worth more thought, I bet.

Clearly there is a lot to think about and much more to be said on this matter. The best first step is to try to get to know your narrator a bit before beginning the interview to determine if that person would not only contribute to existing knowledge but would get something out of the oral history process too.

As always, we at the OHC are thinking and rethinking our methodology and welcome your thoughts and feedback.