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For all their considerable value, oral history interviews are not an unproblematic source. Although narrators speak for themselves, what they have to say does not. Paradoxically, oral history's very concreteness, its very immediacy, seduces us into taking it literally, an approach historian Michael Frisch has criticized as "Anti-History," by which he means viewing "oral historical evidence because of its immediacy and emotional resonance, as something almost beyond interpretation or accountability, as a direct window on the feelings and . . . on the meaning of past experience."* As with any source, historians must exercise critical judgment when using interviews--just because someone says something is true, however colorfully or convincingly they say it, doesn't mean it is true. Just because someone "was there" doesn't mean they fully understand "what happened."

The first step in assessing an interview, then, is to consider the reliability of the narrator and the verifiability of the account. The narrator's relationship to the events under discussion, and the personal stake in presenting a particular version of events, the physical and mental state at the time of the events under discussion and at the moment of the interview, as well as the overall attention and care the narrator brings to the interview and the internal consistency of the account itself all figure into the narrator's reliability as a source. The veracity of what is said in an interview can be gauged by comparing it both with other interviews on the same subject and with related documentary evidence. If the interview jibes with other evidence, if it builds upon or supplements this evidence in a logical and meaningful way, one can assume a certain level of veracity in the account. If, however, it conflicts with other evidence or is incompatible with it, the historian needs to account for the disparities: Were different interviewees differently situated in relationship to the events under discussion? Might they have different agendas, leading them to tell different versions of the same story? Might the written sources be biased or limited in a particular way? Might intervening events--for example, ideological shifts between the time of the events under discussion and the time of the interview or subsequent popular cultural accounts of these events--have influenced later memories? Writing in 1977 about the confirmation of Griffin Bell for United States attorney general, journalist Calvin Trillin quoted a black attorney who had quipped that if all the white politicians who said they were working behind the scenes for racial justice actually were doing so, "it must be getting pretty crowded back there, behind the scenes." Similarly, John F. Kennedy's assassination not only reshaped Americans' subsequent views of him but even changed how they remembered their earlier perceptions. Although Kennedy was elected with just 49.7% of the vote in the fall of 1960, almost two-thirds of all Americans remembered voting for him when they were asked about it in the aftermath of his assassination."*

In fact, inconsistencies and conflicts among individual interviews and between interviews and other evidence point to the inherently subjective nature of oral history. Oral history is not simply another source, to be evaluated unproblematically like any other historical source. To treat it as such confirms the second fallacy identified by Frisch, the "More History" approach to oral history, which views interviews as "raw data" and "reduce[s them] to simply another kind of evidence to be pushed through the historian's controlling mill."* An interview is inevitably an act of memory, and while individual memories can be more or less accurate, complete, or truthful, in fact interviews routinely include inaccurate and imprecise information, if not outright falsehoods. Narrators frequently get names and dates wrong, conflate disparate events into a single event, recount strories of questionable truthfulness. Although oral historians do attempt to get the story straight through careful background research and informed questioning, they are ultimately less concerned with the vagaries of individual memories than with the larger context within which individual acts of remembering occur, or with what might be termed social memory. In what is perhaps the most cited article in the oral history literature, Alessandro Portelli brilliantly analyzes why oral accounts of the death of Italian steel worker Luigi Trastulli, who was shot during a workers' rally protesting NATO in 1949, routinely get the date, place, and reason for his death wrong. Narrators manipulated the facts of Trastulli's death to render it less senseless and more comprehensible to them; or, as Portelli argues, "errors, inventions, and myths lead us through and beyond facts to their meanings."*

What is needed then is an understanding of oral history not so much as an exercise in fact finding but as an interpretive event, as the narrator compresses years of living into a few hours of talk, selecting, consciously and unconsciously, what to say and how to say it. Indeed, there is a growing literature, some of it included in the appended bibliography, on the interpretive complexities of oral history interviews, replete with strategies for mining their meaning. Much of it begins with the premise that an interview is a storied account of the past recounted in the present, an act of memory shaped as much by the moment of telling as by the history being told. Each interview is a response to a particular person and set of questions, as well as to the narrator's inner need to make sense of experience. What is said also draws upon the narrator's linguistic conventions and cultural assumptions and hence is an expression of identity, consciousness, and culture. Put simply, we need to ask: who is saying what, to whom, for what purpose, and under what circumstances. While these questions cannot really be considered in isolation when applying them to a specific interview--the who is related to the what is related to the why is related to the when and where--here we will consider each in turn to develop an overview of the issues and questions involved.