Ohio History Journal

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Oral History in an Ethnic Community:

The Problems and the Promise


Oral history, whether viewed by proponents or detractors, is rarely

taken lightly. Barbara Tuchman, for example, has charged that "with

the appearance of a tape recorder, a monster with the appetite of a

tapeworm, we now have, through its creature, oral history, an artificial

survival of trivia of appalling proportions."1 In contrast, Saul

Benison, among the ablest practitioners of the art of oral history,

asserts that "the memoir that emerges as a result of this process

[interviewing] is a new kind of historical document. Although it has

been created by a participant in past events, it is also the creation of

the historian-interviewer who has in fact determined the historical

problems and relationships to be examined."2 Benison, well aware of

charges like Tuchman's, knows too that "this mutual creation

contributes to both the strength and weakness inherent in oral history

memoirs."3 My own goal in this essay is to touch upon the strengths

and weaknesses of oral history, and to illustrate these with brief

excerpts from a few of the more than fifty tapes (two hours each)

which now comprise the Columbus Jewish History Project.

Oral history obviously involves much more than tape recording

reminiscences and observations. Initially, the historian must identify

those topics where eyewitness accounts can contribute to our

understanding of the subject, and then identify those persons whose

relationships to the topics were intimate, whose memories are sharp,

and who are willing to discuss their experiences. Such topics might

include the founding of an ethnic institution, the visit of a

controversial personality, the relationship of various sub-groups to

the total community (divorced persons, faculty, organizations), crime

(Prohibition violations, gangsters, petty thievery), the development of



Dr. Raphael is Associate Professor of History at The Ohio State University.


1. Quoted in Larry Van Dyne, "Oral History: Sharecroppers and Presidents, Jazz

and Texas Oil," Chronicle of Higher Education Review (December 24, 1973), 10.

2. Saul Benison, "Reflections on Oral History," American Archivist, XXVIII

(January 1965), 73.

3. Benison, Tom Rivers: Reflections on a Life in Medicine and Science (Cambridge,

MA, 1967),ix.