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  • Around the Globe: Rethinking Oral History with its Protagonists by Miroslav Vaněk
  • Anna Batistová
Around the Globe: Rethinking Oral History with its Protagonists. By Miroslav Vaněk. Prague: Karolinum Press, 2013. 172 pp. Softbound, $20.00.

There is something metatextually appropriate about celebrated Czech oral historian Miroslav Vaněk’s unique project: engaging in oral history by speaking to other oral historians about oral history. In his latest work, Vaněk addresses thirteen of the most prominent researchers in the field, including such luminaries as David King Dunaway, Alexander von Plato, Alessandro Portelli, and Paul Thompson. Utilizing the format of short interviews, he recasts each historian in the unusual role of interviewee; unfortunately, due to a lack of time, Vaněk was not able to record traditional, detailed autobiographical narratives. The interviews do, however, present some valuable insight into the minds of our most prolific oral historians.

Vaněk, director of the Oral History Center at the Institute of Contemporary History, Czech Academy of Sciences, is a promoter of oral history methodology in his native Czech Republic. He specializes in modern Czech history, focusing on socialist-era dissidents. Furthermore, he has established a global reputation by, among other achievements, occupying the presidency of the International Oral History Association from 2010 to 2012. His regrettably slender book of interviews is comprised of three parts. In the first, Vaněk explains the reasoning behind his pursuit of this line of inquiry and defines his areas of research. The second part contains the interviews. The final section of the book presents Vaněk’s opinions on the rules and ethics of oral history research.

The initial impulse to prepare the material for the original Czech publication O orální historii s jejími zakladateli a protagonisty, which can be translated as On Oral History with its Founders and Protagonists (Praha: Ústav pro soudobé dějiny, 2008) stemmed, according to Vaněk, from his desire “to introduce to the Czech public important international figures in the field of oral history, including their personal recollections and, above all, their views reflecting upon fundamental theoretical-methodological questions” (9). When a publishing house offered to publish the book of interviews in English, Vaněk agreed and decided to pose two additional questions to his interviewees, this time just via e-mail. These questions were, first, about the possibility of sharing a narrator’s story as discussed in Michael Frisch’s A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), [End Page 357] and second, about the coexistence of oral historians and journalists. As he explains, the aim of the book was not to create a history of oral history or to answer its theoretical questions but to demonstrate how the pioneers of oral history “can differ in their views on current and future themes concerning oral history” (11).

The uniqueness of the book lies in the interviews with some of the most prominent oral historians of our time—Rina Benmayor, David King Dunaway, Alexander Freund, Ronald Grele, Daniela Koleva, Elizabeth Millwood, Charles T. Morrisey, Robert Perks, Alexander von Plato, Alessandro Portelli, Donald A. Ritchie, Alistair Thomson, and Paul Thompson. Vaněk conducted the interviews from 2007 to 2008, mainly during international history conferences. Admitting that the selection of the individuals and discussed themes was dictated more by circumstances than by a previously conceived plan, Vaněk chose to interview both the doyens of oral history and their younger counterparts on seven thematic topics: their first encounter with oral history; strengths of oral history; the future of oral history; their reactions to critiques from conservative historians; advice to Czech colleagues; the possibility to share a narrator’s story; and the coexistence of oral historians and journalists. All the interviewees offer some interesting recollections; they present compelling views on the current state of oral history along with convincing prognostications about their field, and all seemed willing to change their usual roles and become great interviewees. Given all of this, it is regrettable that the interviews are all so brief. There would be so much more to ask in depth if the opportunity had...