Oral history is another medium in which history can be recorded most prominently as eyewitness accounts. This method has recently come back into popularity, as the recollection of events through stories have been recorded since the beginning of telling history. Although, many oral accounts were lost due to illiteracy, these oral histories provided testimony of events that historians recorded of long past historical events. The use of oral history lost some legitimacy with the development of the Rankean school of history in the late 19th century as the professional historians relied upon official government and documented sources to re-tell political history. Beginning with the New Left and “bottom up” history, oral testimony once again claimed legitimacy as the untold stories of thousands of the general public were tapped for recollections of events that effected not just the political elite, but the average individual.
Historians continue to use these sources in a variety of methods. With the advancement of recording technologies, decades of testimonial accounts are now recorded and transcribed and continue to make a presence in the writing of history. These new methods also add a visual element to the oral testimony as documentary evidence combines the eyewitness accounts with the individual themselves that in a way, humanize the oral account by reminding the viewer of the person that is present and telling their story. Professional historians continue to weigh these accounts with varying degrees of skepticism, yet the oral testimonies are still presented to the audience that allow engaged listeners to determine the accounts’ authenticity. Of course, objectivity is still in the hands of the interviewer or recorder as historical questions can be framed in a subjective context and even pressure the interviewee to respond in a way which may be favorable for the recorder (specifically considering potential biases of the Federal Writer’s Project and slave recollections). Additionally, these recollections can be edited and pieced together in a documentary format in which the editor/director has control over the nature of the historical message or the point they are trying to convey.
I plan to use oral testimony of the displaced citizens of the Savannah River Site by contacting uprooted residents of the communities torn down. I would also like to make their audio testimony available to the viewers of the planned website, which in general will seek to digitize all of the primary and (possible) secondary source material that allow the user of the website to form their own conclusions rather than letting the interviewer (me) or the interviewee (potential residents, or perhaps with any luck, government officials) getting the final say in the SRS and its affects on the communities lost. Some testimonies of these residents are available now online, and for those I cannot collect, I hope to collaborate with those who have been able to interview the residents of the SRS communities and publish these memories for a larger audience.
As with any historical medium, oral testimony adds to the wealth of resources available for historians to prime for data relating to their subjects. And just as with these sources, oral testimonies need to be carefully weighed for subjectivity by the engaged reader/listener/viewer of the histories as well as that reader take an active approach (not just reading, but researching historical facts) in learning about events. As with all historical sources, I am most concerned with the subjective nature of oral testimony, as this method specifically engages the memory of people effected by events which can carry intense emotional linkages to the person remembering them. I value the voices of those who were there and hopefully can work to prevent a total slant of objective feeling toward sympathy with the interviewees, however, that would be the ideal. I understand realistically, that utilizing these sources creates emotional bonds between the interview subject and the audience and that oftentimes we, as human beings connect with one another and emotionally “side” with that person. I know I will not achieve that Rankean objectivity that historians so desperately seek, yet by giving voices to the general public and those effected by the SRS, I hope to paint a more complete picture of the historical event that gives credence to both government and personal accounts and presents the event as evenly as possible.