The Other Side of the Recorder: Interviewers’ thoughts on interviewing By Elliot Wesselborg

The Other Side of the Recorder: Interviewers’ thoughts on interviewing

By Elliot Wesselborg


The role of the interviewer in an oral history interview is mainly to listen. We interject with the occasion follow-up question or to suggest a new topic, but by and large we are silent on the record. In this space, I want to turn the microphone on ourselves, so to speak, and discuss our own experiences with the archive. I reached out to some classmates to gather their reflections about working as interviewers and explore what we’ve been thinking about in relation to the project.

Rylee said that, as an Iowan herself, this project has made her “question how much has been kept from me (like my grandma specifically not telling me that one of my friends’ mom was a single lesbian farmer).” I relate a lot to this. The more I learn about queer life in Iowa, the more annoyed I am that I didn’t know about any of this before. There are so many amazing stories and people and places; if not for this project, I probably wouldn’t have heard about any of it. Interviewing people has opened my eyes to many aspects of queer history and queer communities both past and present.

Up to this point, my experience of queerness has been very generationally limited. I’ve loved the opportunity to talk with people who were putting on drag shows two decades before I was born. LGBTQ identities are often framed as being of “the future,” sometimes obscuring the reality that queer lives stretch back into the past. A vast amount of queer knowledge is already out there, and I find it deeply reassuring to see myself as stepping into a lineage of queerness.

Especially for those of us raised in metropolitan areas, this project is also an important reminder that queer lives are not limited to places we think of as LGBTQ hotspots. LGBTQ life is primarily discussed as something that exists in urban areas. There is lots and lots of representation of gays in cities and very little of queer and trans people anywhere else. After talking with people who have built lives on farms and in tiny towns, Steven noted that “I wasn’t raised a rural queer but that may or may not be in my future.” The narratives in this archive help to expand our visions of what a queer life can look like.

Much of what makes queer lives livable has to do with the communities we form in order to support one another. Whether they are informal or institutional, these networks sustain us and people often talk about how live changing it was to find that first queer community. However, Payson commented on how the word “community” is often thrown around without much consideration for the labor that goes into creating and sustaining interpersonal connections or recognition of differential distribution of power and resources. Creating community requires constant investment of time and resources and too often that work goes under-recognized. At the same time, these resources are unevenly allocated according to race, socio-economic status, disability and so on. As such, some queer communities are far more visible and well-resourced than others and some queer people are subject to far more marginalization within queer communities than others. In addition to celebrating queer community, we need to continually interrogate these entities—how and where do they fail? How do we hold ourselves accountable to one another? How can we do better?

Lastly, we had some thoughts about interviewing itself. The oral history interview is a pretty unique space; sitting across from a virtual stranger and listening to someone’s life story for two hours is not a typical style of interaction. None of us are professional oral historians. In class we read about the ethics, best practices and general tips for interviewing. We listened to interviews and practiced interviewing each other, but we are all in the process of learning how to do this. For some of us, the idea of occupying this space was intimidating and we wondered whether our social skills were good enough for the task. Whatever our concerns going in, however, my classmates all told me how meaningful it is to be trusted with a narrator’s stories. Many of us were surprised at the intimacy of the interview space; Rylee explained that her favorite moments are when someone tells her “I have never told anyone this before.” It’s a privilege to be let into our narrator’s lives and we hope some of that experience comes across as people listen to the interviews.

The entity that is LGBT Oral Histories of Central Iowa is, in part, reflected in the audio files on this website, but also extends beyond that. As a community project, we are just as invested in its impact outside of the specific space of the interview. As we continue to build this archive, we hope it will be a resource for queer and trans people in Iowa to learn more about each other and to foster connections outside of this space.

Why an Oral History of LGBT Central Iowa?

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.