Oral History Off the Record: Toward an Ethnography of Practice ed. by Anna Sheftel and Stacey Zembrzycki (review)
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Oral History Off the Record: Toward an Ethnography of Practice. By Anna Sheftel and Stacey Zembrzycki (eds.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 301 pages. Softbound, $30.00.

"How do you share authority, exactly?" Anna Sheftel and Stacey Zembrzycki asked themselves this as they discussed effective practices for humanistic oral history interviewing (emphasis in original, 9). Sheftel and Zembrzycki met while working together as interviewers for the excellent community-engaged project, Montreal Life Stories (http://www.lifestoriesmontreal.ca/). They eventually became good friends and began sharing and learning from each other's deeply personal experiences as oral history interviewers in a way that we do not often see in oral history literature. These are the stories we crave to share but fear are perhaps too personal for a professional setting, even though what we need most is the feedback of colleagues who understand the complexities of the oral history relationship. Eager to discover more ways to put theory into practice, Sheftel and Zembrycki invited other oral historians from different methodological backgrounds and at different stages of their careers to join them to "debrief as a community of practitioners" at a workshop held in Montreal in 2011 (5). This collection of essays is a continuation of conversations begun at that workshop.

"Personal scholarship is sometimes viewed as not scholarly enough," writes Steven High in his forward to this volume. "It is always risky business when we reveal our personal vulnerability or professional fallibility" (xvii - xviii). I admire all of the contributors to this collection for their thoughtful candor. The theoretical questions raised here (such as, should we write about the silences in an interview?) would not be as powerful without their real experiences serving as examples.

I am sometimes dismayed that feminist methodology is not always credited for inspiring collaborative community-based scholarship and conversations about interpersonal power dynamics generally. For instance, Michael Frisch does acknowledges this influence of feminist scholarship on his germinal book A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), yet many oral historians today talk about "sharing authority" seemingly without awareness of the concept's links to feminisms. Therefore, I was pleased to read in Sheftel and [End Page 444] Zembrzycki's introduction that "it should come as no surprise that many identify specifically with the subfield of feminist oral history, as it was one of the first movements within the field to take on the questions about power, subjectivity, marginalization, and the interviewer's often conflicted position as an academic, advocate, community member, and friend" (7).

Sherna Berger Gluck, editor of the canonical Women's Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History (New York: Routledge, 1991), and feminist labor historian Joan Sangster both contributed excellent essays that describe how feminist oral history has evolved from the recovery history phase (celebrating women's voices) to now, when we can afford to be more critical of this work. Applying an intersectional feminist lens to feminist oral history today leads us to ask complicating questions about project audiences, goals, and co-investigators. Gluck writes that rather than "struggling with the contradictory demands of advocacy oral history and scholarly integrity … I am convinced it is not advocacy oral history that presents us with these challenges, but rather the general commitment to collaboration" (39-40). This resonates for me, and I look forward to more discussions about how to value and evaluate (and credit) the intellectual and methodological contributions to the field made by oral history projects undertaken in collaborative settings such as public history and movement building. The academic model of solitary scholarship and publishing continues to delegitimize other forms of knowledge creation subtly. Sangster challenges this assumed hierarchy: "I think the notion that oral historians should avoid challenging and contradicting our interviewees … can be condescending, especially if, like these women, they lived lives of engaged, political, public activism and debate" (64).

Many contributors write about the complicated relationships we have with narrators (either in person, or in our heads) long after the interview is archived, the project is completed, the book is written. Ethical questions linger. Nancy Janovicek, Pamela Sugiman, Julie Cruikshank...


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