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.