restricted access Afterword: When History Talks Back - Clyde A. Milner II
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327 Afterword When History Talks Back Clyde A. Milner II how do we understand the past? Academically trained historians have their ways of researching and presenting a form of understanding . But nearly everyone early on in their lives has some personal connection to and understanding of the past. Families are important for this comprehension, as are local communities. For many people, their real “history” is not in books but in the memories they carry. The work of oral historians certifies that insight when an interview reveals the ways that individuals remember their pasts. This view of the past may seem highly personal, but as the studies in this book reveal, personal retrospection can produce vital information about collective perceptions of community and work. Oral history can reveal much more. The fifteen diverse, insightful essays presented here demonstrate the importance of collecting oral histories in the American West. Although aspects of community and work appear in every chapter, other critical themes about oral history and the West are embedded in this work. The variety of locations and populations provide perceptions of families’ and women’s lives, ethnic and racial challenges, as well as economic and political struggles. We see a larger, more complex West through the lens of these studies. We also see the way that memory and stories shape our connection to the past. To each author’s credit, the collaborative realities of the oral history interview are not ignored. The interviewer, even in subtle ways, can influence and shape the results of the interview. What’s more, a series of interviews can enhance and modify the sense of community shared by a group of people. 328 clyde a. milner ii As Jessie Embry explains in her examination of the Redd Center Oral History Program (chapter 1), efforts to undertake oral history interviews and the resulting oral history collections have become vital tools in scholarly research on the American West. This upward trend commenced by the start of the 1970s, if not earlier. Indeed, as Laurie Mercier recognizes (chapter 3), the volume of interviews gathered across the West is so substantial that this resource should be used more effectively by scholars. The holdings in various local, state, and university archives can be used for large-scale social and cultural history projects, much as Mercier proposes to do by revisiting her own work from the 1980s in Montana. The writings in this volume show that a new era may be dawning for applying the results of oral history in the West. Where will this new era take us? I think it will greatly amplify our understanding of western history, especially from the mid-­ twentieth century to the present. The technology for undertaking interviews has progressed dramatically from the rudimentary efforts with wax cylinders and wire recorders to the impressive audiovisual clarity of digital formats today. As the technologies have improved, the volume of available interviews has expanded dramatically. How these oral history collections may be accessed for research may soon leap ahead with new search tools. In a manner similar to what happens with full-text keyword searches of historic newspapers, imagine the equivalent search through hundreds of hours of digitally archived audio files to find statements about certain ideas, events, places, individuals, and groups. If we can find important words that were printed in any digitized collection of papers, why not the equivalent for the spoken word in oral history collections? Even if such technological marvels for searching audio files will soon exist, these advances will not necessarily address the full context of what oral history provides. The act of interviewing engages the present and the past. What happens is not simply a way to gather more information. A larger dynamic for individual lives and personal stories becomes evident. Yes, information does exist in the content of most interviews, but the interview itself, as the chapters in this book remind us, is more than fact finding. The questions, answers, digressions, amplifications, and silences that interviews may contain reveal the collaborative nature of oral history. Of course, the person Afterword 329 being interviewed is the primary subject, but the interviewer also affects the event. José M. Alamillo reminds us in his chapter that “oral history is not just a research method but a political project. The process of engaging people with memories of their lives requires patience, self-reflexive alertness, careful listening, and political risk” (chapter 5). In an earlier version of her essay, Melanie Newport recognized when meeting with members...


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Subject Headings

  • West (U.S.) -- Social life and customs -- 20th century.
  • West (U.S.) -- Social conditions -- 20th century.
  • Interviews -- West (U.S.).
  • Oral history -- West (U.S.).
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