by Elliot Wesselborg
This archive is comprised of dozens of hours of audio recording generated from interviews with LGBT-identified Iowans. The content of interviews ranges from stories about childhood, to descriptions of bars, to encounters with health care providers, to remembering conversations with friends around a dinner table. Some of these accounts are amusing, others are sad. Some recount wild adventures, others describe moments of everyday life. Importantly, these interviews are not exactly what many people expect to find when they hear the word “history.”
What is unique about oral history?
Within the field of history, oral histories have traditionally been discounted as a means of examining the past. Historians relying mainly on written and visual records as source material have argued that oral narratives based in an individuals’ memory are not valuable sources of information because they are not objective. Advocates of oral history challenge how we approach this idea of “objectivity” and believe that oral testimony offers insights that cannot be found through other sources.
Alessandro Portelli and Hayden White were two early oral historians whose work reframed how academia thought about oral history. Portelli’s 1991 book The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories opens with a chapter describing how residents of an Italian town remembered the death of Trastulli, a steel worker. He found that many residents actually misremembered the circumstances of this event, placing the death in different years and locations than what was on record. Rather than discarding these accounts for their factual inaccuracies, Portelli argued that by examining how the story of this death is remembered and recounted, we can learn about the social and political landscape of the time. Trastulli’s death had become a symbol in a larger struggle for worker’s rights and the details were amended to make a compelling narrative about these efforts.
Hayden White’s work speaks to history as this narrativization of events. In producing a historical account, a historian does not simply repeat what happened, starting at one arbitrary point, ending at a different arbitrary point. Histories are told as stories with a narrative arc, laden with values and cultural meaning. They take on significance beyond the individual events to become stories of triumph or defeat or a lesson learned. There is no neutral or objective history; anytime we tell a history, we are telling a story about our understanding of the world.
Storytelling is one of the most important ways in which people and communities make sense of what has happened in their lives. How we tell a story about what happened is just as valuable as the particulars of what actually occurred. Through the medium of stories, we can learn about what matters to a community.
What does oral history offer to LGBT communities?
Beyond discussions of memory and storytelling, oral history is a means of bolstering an incomplete or limited historical record. Communities that do not have access to record-keeping or are not considered historically relevant aren’t included in traditional forms of historical documentation. Until recent decades, communities built largely around sexual relationships and gender non-conformity were not believed to have historical value. As such, these places, events and people often exist only in peoples’ memories or personal documents. Especially in Iowa, information about LGBT life in the state is not stored in ways that are accessible to the public or to future generations. When we sit down with a narrator, record an interview and make it publicly available, it ensures that this knowledge becomes part of the historical record beyond an individual person’s memory.
Individual experiences become a means through which to access information about society at large. One person’s narrative offers a snapshot of what life was like in a particular time and place. Through these accounts we can piece together a more complete history of LGBT lives in Iowa, as well as in the Midwest and rural areas more broadly.