Ohio History Journal

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To the Editor:

Marc Raphael has used his experience as an interviewer for the Columbus

Jewish History Project to write a short analysis of the opportunities and

difficulties surrounding oral history in an ethnic community (Autumn 1977).

Much of what Professor Raphael writes is solid and well-reasoned. In certain

technical areas, however, he stated as fact what is at best opinion or pre-

sented information which is less than accurate.

Raphael's most significant contribution is a thorough discussion of how a

good oral history program can overcome the problems inherent in any oral

history interview. He correctly warns the researcher that the veracity of aural

evidence, just like that of traditional historical sources, should never be

accepted without subjecting that evidence to the "normal critical canons of

historical research." Absolutely. He is also careful to point out that in any

oral history situation, the interviewer, as well as the respondent, is an active

participant, whose questions, attitudes, biases, and phraseology will in part

determine the success of the interview.

The key to a good interview is not so much an eloquent or glib respondent

as it is a well-prepared interviewer. Raphael relates how he structured his

sessions to include test questions to which he already knew the answers.

He also says, correctly again, that an interviewer can gain the confidence

of a respondent by starting an interview with the least sensitive matters.

Most importantly, he details his ingenious background research which mini-

mized the potential for pure reminiscence in any interview.

Unfortunately, this lively discourse is marred by several technical mis-

statements which should be corrected or at least amended. It is simply not

true, as Raphael writes, that "voices recorded on the finest tape at the

slowest speed (1-7/8) and then stored in a file drawer or cabinet will dis-

appear completely in a few years." Tape has not been around long enough

for us to know how long it will be before the recorded signal naturally

disappears, but a few years is well short of the mark. Moreover, it is mis-

leading to indicate that the speed at which the recording is made is the

paramount determinant of longevity. Improper temperature and humidity

will do great harm even to those tapes recorded at the fastest speed (7-1/2

ips). Anyway, many oral history programs now prefer to use cassettes

(rather than the Jewish Project's reel-to-reel method), mostly because of

cost and convenience, and all cassettes spin at an invariable, slow 1-7/8 ips.

Professor Raphael also argues that the problem of meandering or reticent

respondents can sometimes be solved by "turning off the recorder, chatting

informally," and trying to relax the respondent. Perhaps, but in many cases

the recorder itself is the source of the respondent's nervousness. Willa K.

Baum, a noted theorist and practitioner of oral history and author of Oral

History for the Local Historical Society (Nashville, 1975, 2nd ed. rev.), notes

that repeatedly switching the recorder on and off merely calls attention to the

machine. Better to turn the recorder on and leave it on, in the hope that it

will become unobtrusive. Then, too, keeping the recorder on avoids the chance

of receiving "off the record" information, a practice which, if repeated, can

rob the interview of both substance and flavor.