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Oral History


Prof. Nanci Adler (UvA/NIOD) & Prof. Selma Leydesdorff (UvA)

Members of the research group

prof.dr. N. Adler

dr. K.C. Berkhoff
dr. L.A. Bialasiewicz

L. Boerhout MA
prof.dr. S. Leydesdorff

dr. S. Stigter
dr. J.J.B. Turpijn

A. Wielocha MA

External Members:
E. Captain (UU/Nationaal Comitee 4 en 5 mei)
S. Scagliola (Erasmus School of History)
P. Witkamp (DANS)

Description of the research programme of the research group

Oral History

Contemporary history writing relies largely on memory. However, memory is contextual and ever-shifting. Even though memories are remarkably unstable, it is accepted that many histories are passed on through individual recollections that provide unique knowledge. The fluctuating nature of memory is particularly relevant in the case of traumatized survivors of large-scale atrocities. Historians and psychologists who specialize in ‘oral history’, though working in different academic environments, have come to the same conclusion: What a person genuinely remembers changes over time. Memories of the past, and the process of remembrance itself, are composed of intersecting discursive fields that can vary tremendously. They are continuously subject to transformation in the context of strong interaction between individual and collective memories. This interaction is central in this proposal, which will follow the widely accepted assumption that individual memory cannot subsist without a social embedding that is itself susceptible to change.
Modern oral history analyses the transformation of memories and subjectivities over time. Although these memories have been described, they have not been systemically studied at an individual level as collective trajectories of political changes. Although oral history has been involved in so-called memory studies and while one of its main fields is the analysis of the historical role of subjective experience, the divergence between the study of collective memory and individual memory remains. In this project, the objective is to understand the inner workings of memory formation within the framework of Europe’s past and present. Visits to museums and exhibitions on the history of Europe show how volatile memories are and how historical narratives can vary from one place to the other. Research will also examine the influence of gender on memories, still overlooked by historiography. Particular emphasis will be placed on relevant manifestations of inequality between the sexes and the asymmetric memories of men and women.
Memory not only stores the past but restructures, mediates, and adapts it to the semantic frames and needs of a given society. The memory of personal experience is embedded and voiced within the thinkable historical frames, genres, and grand narratives that enable individuals to make sense of their experiences and find a legitimate voice in their societies. Without a collective forum willing to listen or the lawful right to be heard, it is impossible to make sense of an experience, since people can only articulate their own narrative in the presence of an imagined audience. Reinterpretation of this existing material is another objective of the project. It will participate in the discussion on digital sources
and approaches to connect them. It will track narrative modifications in the life stories of those, whose past interviews were preserved in public and private collections. The project will open up parallel lines
of research, since interdisciplinary interaction is crucial to the field. Although historians will provide a focal point from which the issues of trauma, memory, and history will be probed, it will include specialists in a variety of fields such as narrative studies, trauma studies, and memory studies. Nanci Adler and Selma Leydesdorff are both editors of the cutting edge series ‘Memory and Narratives’ where theory is added to a more empirical practice of oral history and life stories. Luiza Bialasiewicz who works on life stories of immigrants and diasporic memory bases her work on life stories but her ERC funded project expands from there.

Archives of Memories

The project also seeks to develop a comprehensive approach to the preservation and reuse of oral history collections for academic research, and a systematization of current debates by encompassing
both theoretical aspects and the question how to approach best practice regarding archiving and disclosure. The project will focus on collections of structured interviews, and conduct further research into the broader theoretical and methodological issues in Oral History in order to develop better criteria for selection. Current archives and research in Oral History face a number of problems, such as the chaotic nature and dispersion of available material, which complicates the possibilities of both checking performed research and the re-use of sources in future projects. Also, there are large variations in quality, type of documentation, mode of archiving, and target audiences, and the variety of different initiatives currently impedes the possibilities of comparing sources. Last, much of the material is still in the possession of the researchers that created it and therefore inaccessible to third parties.

Best Practices for Quality

Another central point of discussion is the monitoring and ensuring of quality. This explicitly includes the theoretical and methodological question of what determines the quality of oral sources (the interviewer, the metadata, the context, the possibility to view raw unedited data). Paramount is the need for contextual information, both on creation of the collection as well as the social and historical background of the events discussed in the interviews. Third, rapid technological development poses questions of sustainable storage of digital material but also threatens to result in a “technology push”, forcing archives to renew constantly. In sum, there is a need to think about archiving issues and possible reuse already from the moment of creation of oral history collections. This will ensure that services offered by archives are meeting researchers’ needs and aims.

Envisaged results

The proposed collaboration between UvA, DANS, EUR, Nationaal Comité 4 en 5 mei, Anne Frank Foundation, and other heritage partners seeks to establish a new centre for oral history (provisional title: Institute for Living History, ILG), that will provide a platform for both the central preservation of oral history collections and for the exchange of knowledge on the conditions for creating, preserving and reusing such collections in academic research. The research group aims to apply for an ‘NWO-Groot’ ( Recording and Interpreting the changing individual memories of Holocaust survivors in the Post Communist Era)funding proposal, which will be submitted in 2014 (with 3 PhD dissertations, 2 Post-Docs, 1 edited volume). The group has subprojects including the ERC Grant proposal ‘Recording and Interpreting the Changing Individual Memories of Holocaust Survivors in the Post-Communist Era’, the ERC grant proposal (N. Adler) and the subproject of the ERC grant (L. Bialasiewicz)

Work plan and time

2014 – 2018, with a long-term outcome in the form of an institute and/or archive or database.

Societal relevance

On a practical level, this research group aims to enlarge the accessibility and quality of oral history sources. The current lack of tradition contributes to a very limited exchange of knowledge between different researchers and dissemination and accessibility to a more general audience. On a more theoretical level, the historical transition to a Post-Cold War Europe, rapid technological advancements and development of New Media and digitization have deeply affected individual memories, effects that have been recognized but little explored. Moreover, these crucial developments have also contributed strongly to the need of European citizens and scholars alike to rethink identity and memory.