The important parts of an oral history, I think, are as much about what people don’t say as anything else. Sometimes people forget; sometimes they couldn’t fit every detail of a story in if they wanted to; sometimes there’s something they don’t want to talk about; sometimes there’s something they can’t talk about at all.
I don’t like calling anything an art – I think it’s a hand-wavey way of saying that developing expertise is complicated and not going into details – but reading between the lines of an interview comes close. There are things that fall into place days, weeks, or even months after the interview, things that fall into place during other interviews, and things that fall into place when you’re thinking things over and somehow they just seem to fit. And the silences are some of the most maddening, fascinating things about oral history – the things that raise questions over and over again.
Yet silences are often delicate. Not all silences are because of trauma, but many silences are a way that people say to the interviewer, to the archive, to the wider world that some things are private and off-limits. Navigating those silences – those assertions of privacy – require interviewers to think hard about why we want to uncover these private stories.
I have to admit this is something I struggle with; I trained as a science writer before I trained as a historian. My instinct is to find a story hidden in those silences and dig deep. And I usually think I have good reasons to dig for these stories; somewhere in those silences there’s information about how science works. That doesn’t give me the automatic right to dig into someone’s life and speculate about their private business.
I’m leaving this incomplete partly because I’m tired, and partly because an interviewer’s work here – thinking about ethics in our histories and what and who we have to think about when we do history – is incomplete. There’s always something new to think about, something old to reflect on.
Oral History off the Record has been invaluable to me in navigating silences.
“The Unsaid, the Incommunicable, the Unbearable, and the Irretrievable” by Henry Greenspan is one of the first articles I ever read about silences and incommunicability, and well worth reading for any interviewer.