Using Oral Histories: A View from the Forest History Society

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Q&A with Cheryl Oakes
Librarian/Archivist, Forest History Society

In this Q&A, Cheryl explains the unique ways in which oral histories can capture various perspectives and experiences that written records may not illuminate. She also discusses the Forest History Society’s collection of oral histories from the Canadian industry, which would be a valuable resource for many researchers.

1. The Forest History Society has many resources for Canadian researchers, including a number of oral histories. Can you describe your oral history collection?

The Society’s Oral History Interview Collection includes more than 275 oral history interviews (OHIs) conducted with individuals involved with the management and use of forests and their related resources. The sound recordings are in various analog formats, including reel-to-reel recordings, stenorette tapes, and cassettes. Most interviews have at least rough transcriptions in typescript. Electronic transcriptions for more recently conducted interviews are available for research in the Society’s library, and some are accessible through our web site from links in our Annotated Guide to the FHS Oral History Collection. We also produce photocopies of transcripts when researchers are unable to visit our Library.

Subjects discussed in our oral history interviews broadly pertain to the history of human interaction with the forested environment. Many people interviewed by the Society in the 1940s and 1950s were veterans of the forest products industry whose first-hand accounts of momentous events document critical policy changes that occurred within the industry in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. During the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the Society’s OHI mission expanded to include projects that recorded the reminiscences of forestry educators and researchers, conservationists, and employees of U.S. government agencies charged with managing natural resources. Many interviews conducted over the last couple of decades describe the contentious political atmosphere experienced by women who held relatively high positions of leadership within the United States Forest Service (USFS) or describe the administrative challenges faced by former chiefs of the USFS and administrators of the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

2. To your knowledge, have different researchers used these oral histories and for what purposes?

The oral history collections have been used over the years by people doing academic research in the fields of history, anthropology, sociology, geography, and economics to flesh out the data found in archival documents. They provide evidence of how company directives affected workers, how government employees viewed changes in policy by their agencies, and what social conditions were like in small communities around the U.S. during the 20th century. They have been used by education consultants in producing classroom activities for middle school students through our “If Trees Could Talk” social studies curriculum. Portions of interviews have been published in our various journals and magazines. A small portion of one interview is available on our website as an audio file as a way to increase interest in using the collection and we will like provide more as technology for handling larger file sizes improves. Another important group of users is genealogists, who find oral history interviews of great value for their family histories.

3. If a researcher was planning to use existing oral history collections, how would you suggest that they listen to and analyze them most effectively?

Nearly all research involving the oral history interviews uses the transcripts rather than the audio versions. It is much easier to read a transcript, mark significant passages, and refer back to it as research progresses. But if the need arises we can provide a cassette version of most recordings so that the researcher can hear the actual voice of the interviewee and learn something about them from their speech patterns, emphasis, etc.

4. What types of stories, experiences, etc., do you think oral histories can especially document? Why do you think that the creation and use of oral histories is a valuable research method?

Oral history interviewing is a technique that preserves the cultural heritage of people from all economic and social classes by recording reminiscences about events that impacted an individual’s life. It attempts to fill in gaps that are found in the written record. In many cases it is the next best thing to being there.

5. Are there any particular kinds of oral histories that you would hope to see in the future? (E.g. more recent accounts of the forest industry, experiences of government workers, groups whose role perhaps has traditionally been less well-understood?)

Like any other undertaking, oral history projects require financial support. The support is liable to be strongest around a particular company, department, or event. We are constantly striving for ongoing support that will allow us to more strategically target stories that need to be told, even if they are not so glamorous or connected to an anniversary or other celebration. There are many issues that have been of importance and have sometimes caused contention between the U.S. and Canada that deserve to be better documented through oral histories. Women and minorities have always been under-represented in history, so we would also like to rectify that as much as possible.


Featured image: Spotting crew, Chewaucan Unit. Fremont National Forest, Oregon, 1940. USDA Forest Service. Photo by William D. Bedard. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

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