Oral Histories: Minding the Gaps

Some of my favorite parts of Mormon history are the accounts and stories of rank and file members, tales from their lives that show the impact of the gospel and the culture around them. I like to see how people interpreted (or do interpret) their religion, and how their faith plays out in their lives. It’s not a secret that much of earlier Church history lacks firsthand accounts and stories from women. In the past, research collected in books like Women’s Voices  have filled in some gaps. Current attempts to highlight the lives of Latter-Day women are being undertaken in such projects as the seven volume series Women of Faith project. 

 In recent years, several projects seek to remedy the lack of female voice in the historical record by collecting history as it happens now.  Each of these projects are useful both for current research, expanding the current understanding of what it means to be a Mormon woman; and to maintain a more complete history for the future. All of these projects involve collection of data using oral history methods. These projects include The Mormon Women Project, the Claremont Collection, the Church History Library collections, the University of Utah collections and individual projects encouraged by the General Relief Society.

While the Mormon Women Project usually doesn’t employ systematic historical data collection with open-ended questions, archived sound files and transcriptions of interviews will add to the historical record beyond the website interview format.

Claudia Bushman oversees the Claremont project, interviewing a demographic of Mormon women in southern California. In a recent address at the Women’s Lives, Women’s Voices  conference, Bushman encouraged conference participants to collect oral histories, reminding listeners that no woman is too young to be interviewed. In other words, the fresh experiences of young women are just as valuable as the years of experience of elderly women.

The Church History Library has an excellent ongoing collection of oral histories from around the globe. These oral histories collect history as it happens, interviewing early Church members as the Church continues to expand and grow in more and more places. These interviews are accessible after a set number of years to researchers.

At  LDS.org, the Relief Society page also encourages sisters to collect oral history data by recording brief experiences of sisters around them.  Having sisters interview each other in this way not only expands the historical record, but has the potential to build sisterhood within branches and wards as sisters meet and record one another.

Lastly, Mormon Studies scholar Gregory Prince is also collecting oral histories which will be housed at the University of Utah.  

Oral histories matter for lots of reasons.  They fill in the gaps of the written record. In Mormon history it seems women’s history has been approached differently than men’s, given only in life vignettes, mere  glimpses into personalities without real depth. People may talk more candidly than they write. Speech used gives insight into the personalities of people being interviewed

 Oral histories are relatively inexpensive to create, and because more people can record those around them there is more data. Traditionally oral histories have been used to document the lives of underrepresented classes—immigrants, women, working classes, minority groups and uneducated peoples.  Oral histories create primary documents for these classes.

However, as research focuses more and more on women’s voices in the Church, we risk a new dearth, one of the everyday experiences of Mormon men. Men who aren’t in Church hierarchy, the rank and file members whose experiences will be a wealth of knowledge as we explore our past, present, and future.

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    I’ve heard a number of women who have participated in Claudia’s project present, and I thought it was great stuff. Thanks for this.

  2. Thanks for the post. I’ve used a number of female oral histories in the research I have been involved with. They have been very, very helpful and add a different sort of flavor to the documentary mix.

  3. I thought this was an interesting post until:

    “However, as research focuses more and more on women’s voices in the Church, we risk a new dearth, one of the everyday experiences of Mormon men. Men who aren’t in Church hierarchy, the rank and file members whose experiences will be a wealth of knowledge as we explore our past, present, and future.”

    Why does listening to women lead to ignoring men? Our collective ability to collect and archive oral histories aren’t exactly a finite resource- you don’t collect stories from women than realize you don’t have enough hard drive space on your computer for men’s voices. Learning from our past is important, but it doesn’t have to be a man vs. woman thing as that last parting shot seems to imply.

  4. Well, I think mmiles does have a valid point, Jane. In the past when the sole focus was on collecting the records of prominent leaders, the voices of women and less influential men was overlooked. There may be a risk — it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way, but mmiles is warning of the possibility — that when the modern focus is overwhelmingly on collecting women’s voices, certain classes of men — the rank and file, the ward clerks and choir members and janitors, the men who are always there to set up and take down chairs but whose voices you seldom hear — might be overlooked.

    When I started blogging, I wrote a lot of stories about women who had previously been unknown to church history. It was cool. There was a lot of favorable response. But then I realized that in focusing solely on women, I was skipping past some stories of fantastic LDS men whose stories nobody else was telling — a man who installed lath during construction of the Salt Lake Temple, a man in West Virginia who was laughed at for being Ot-the-Mormon until he decided to make that nickname stand for something wonderful, a stove repairman who went undercover to search for the body of a missing missionary — men whose stories might not be told if people focus too exclusively on women’s voices.

  5. Jane, I think I understand his point here, though. You don’t see any “Claremont Project”-type initiatives to encourage the average LDS man to document their personal histories, other than the occasional Sunday school lesson about journal-keeping, etc. It’s my perception that the burden of tracking and recording the day-to-day LDS experience seems to have fallen to the women of the church. THis perception just comes from comparing my own instruction as a young man to what is now being taught my daughter in mutual. Journal-keeping is a huge part of personal progress, but virtually non-existent in the Scouting program (but that’s a topic for another thread). Could we foresee a “Men’s lives, Men’s voices”-type conference ever being held? Perhaps a better question: if it were, would anyone attend?

  6. Jane,
    What Ardis said. I had no intention of this being a men vs. women thing. I was simply making an observation. The average Joe is often overlooked. I see lots of focus on collecting and preserving women’s history, which is good, but I don’t much on collecting men’s. The CHL is an exception.

  7. Matt G.
    I am a she.

  8. sorry!

  9. Two or three years ago our stake asked the women (if the men were involved, I don’t know about it) to answer two or three questions in a few paragraphs, questions about our experiences as church members — not just data about callings filled or dates of missions, but personal feelings and testimonies and experiences. I think that was for potential use in a new stake history. They said they were going to preserve all the responses, regardless of whether they were used in that particular project. I hope they did.

    I’m usually uncooperative with projects like that for some reason, but this time I took it seriously. I tried to think of what I as a researcher would want to know about someone from a century ago, and write my responses to satisfy those wishes, about life as a single woman in a married church, reporting my feelings and describing as specifically as I could some relevant incidents.

    We had people in our ward from all over the world. I wonder if an oral interview might not have been more effective for people whose first language wasn’t English, or who had had little experience with reading church history to know what would be valuable to record.

  10. Ardis,
    Truly, that is one of the beauties of oral histories. Even when people have trouble communicating in writing, they can at least express some things orally. If the RS advertised their desire for grassroots type histories like your wards, I think it could really take off in oral history format. The blip on the RS page is still just a blip.

  11. kentslarsen says:

    A few observations:

    1. Oral interviews are not difficult. They are best when done with a bit of planning and a general knowledge of what the subject could talk about. Perhaps the most time consuming part is the transcription of the interview (if you do one), which takes at least 1.5 times longer than the original interview. There is no reason to assume that oral histories must be done by professionals. If we wait for that to happen, then most of the best ones will never be done.

    2. Ardis is right about the attention specific groups get. For interviews done by the staff of the Church History Library, the focus on leaders can be a bit of a problem, since these interviews can be restricted because they sometimes contain confidential information. Interviews of local members are less likely to be restricted.

    3. Believe it or not, oral interviews is the most important source of information in many cases. I’ve been looking at the history of the Church in Brazil in recent months, and Oral Interviews are probably the best source of information. The other major source, local LDS Church records, is largely restricted, at least until you can narrow and describe your project to the satisfaction of the staff.

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