Can Historians Use Tape-Recorded Interviews?
The use of oral interviews as evidence is a topic of lively debate among historians. Attitudes about the use of interviews vary widely because, while memory usually works remarkably well, it is enormously complicated. The complications of memory fall into two categories. Researchers in many disciplines, including history, law, neuroscience and the social sciences, have found that remembering involves a large degree of personal interpretation. Interview subjects do not simply recall a series of snapshots of the past. Rather, they conceive of stories in order to express memories. Second, memory is malleable and inexact. People sometimes forget things or remember things that never happened. Moreover, later events can affect memories of an episode. Such events might be interactions with other historical actors, or even interactions with an interviewer.
Depending on the questions that historians bring to their research, they grapple with these complications of memory in two ways. One way is to resolve any conflict between memories and documents to achieve a consensus among all the available sources. Interviews can give alternative interpretations to documents, help guide a researcher through the documentary archive, and point to new documents. In the other direction, documents can help to stimulate recollections and to correct errors. This is an approach that historian Lillian Hoddeson has characterized as productively exploiting the malleability of memory and the conflict between memory and documents.
An alternative approach is to note that memories are themselves products of social and historical processes, not just a jumble of truths and falsehoods. Memories are historical events that can be explicated like other historical events. In this approach, a community such as the community of physicists is seen to produce more than new physics knowledge. Communities also produce new members and reproduce the community as a whole. Collective and individual expressions about the past the ways that scientists frame their stories, how they position themselves in those stories serve to construct individual and community identity. This approach focuses less on whether memories are accurate, and more on how memories function.
Different historians find that different approaches to handling oral history interviews will be more or less helpful in answering their particular questions. Many historians have contributed to, and used, the oral history collection at the AIP's Niels Bohr Library. That collection is one of the Library's most heavily used resources, second only to the Emilio Segrè Visual Archive. The earliest interview in the collection is that of Max Born, conducted by Thomas Kuhn in 1960. The collection continues to grow, currently containing more than 850 cataloged interviews and nearly 50,000 pages of transcripts, as well as separate collections in the archives of interview tapes by sociologists and journalists. In addition to conducting its own interviews, the Center for History of Physics supports interviews conducted by other scholars through a grants-in-aid program (www.aip.org/history/web-grnt.htm) and through free transcription services, collects audio recordings and interviews donated to the Niels Bohr Library, and keeps a record in the online International Catalog of Sources of interviews on the history of physics (and allied fields like astronomy and geophysics) that are held in other archives. The Center will conduct a pilot project this year to put selected interviews from its collection on the World Wide Web. Eventually we hope to put online the entire collection, subject of course to any restrictions requested by those who were interviewed.
Interested researchers can find interviews in the collection by searching the International Catalog of Sources, or browse an alphabetical list, starting on the Center's home page (www.aip.org/history).