oral histories versus gossip

Are oral histories less reliable than playground gossip?

As much as we (okay, I) love technology, we sometimes wonder if it isn’t stabbing us in the back. Just as we wonder if access to calculators is undermining our math skills, a case can be made that technology is to blame for the decline of the art of oral histories.

Josh Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, doesn’t point a finger at the Internet. He argues that the Gutenberg Press bears responsibility for the decline of oral histories and the faculty of individual memory. As books became available, people didn’t have to remember everything. They no longer had to pass down stories with great attention to detail and nuance.

Josh Fore is probably right. I’ve seen it happen. Family lore often bears a striking resemblance to the childhood game of “gossip.” We’re not sitting in a circle or whispering, but facts get fuzzy. Names are confused—or worse—forgotten. Events become embellished.

Instead of complete stories full of rich details, we pass down tidbits. For instance, a “story” that an ancestor was a drummer during the war of 1812, lead one researcher (not me, thankfully) to spend countless hours researching military records confirming the story. It would have been nice if that story had included one or two more details. To me, including he enlisted in the Canadian army seems as significant as his musicality.

However, there are a couple of positive aspects in this cloud of fading memories and incomplete records.

Who Is Remembered?

Traditionally, oral histories favored the extraordinary. They featured the accomplished, the rich or royal, and even the beautiful. Like pre-1850 US census records, they also paid a lot more attention to males than females.

As we use technology to preserve memories and stories, we get to remember the commoners. We can explore their stories. We can celebrate how their journeys resonate with the chords of our own experience. Technology available to us—from the humble manual typewriter to social media—wakes up the storytellers in all of us. (At least it should!)

We’re not limited to others’ standards of remarkable or noteworthy. Technology helps us bring stories of ancestors alive to the younger generations. As we share them, some of these stories will lodge in memories. They may have to look up some of the details, but they’ll continue telling the stories.

Stories versus Facts

To my way of thinking, the internet and the phenomenon of information overload can present family historians and storytellers with an opportunity. As the younger generation’s (and our) memories become a veritable memory sieve, we can pass on stories instead of facts. Through writing and sharing, “Bathsheba Shade, b. 1814; d. 1899, m. Henry Chatterton” becomes a narrative. Bathsheba was a child of Philadelphia, born less than forty years after the nation was chartered. She buried three husbands and seven of twelve children. She became a pioneer woman along the Blue River in York County Nebraska. Sharing her story gives her dimension, almost literally. She’s not a blurb on a flat page; she’s a person we wish we could have known.

Technology Can Re-vitalize Oral Histories

Back to the researcher who confirmed her ancestor’s military service as well as his drumming:

Because all the family knew about their ancestor’s War of 1812 experience was that his wife’s military pension was denied, they assumed the tale was false. Now, using technology, Doreen Dollerman can re-tell his story. As she tells it, she can intertwine her story with his story. Moreover, as she does so, she starts conversations and revitalize the family stories.

Your Turn:

What oral histories do you want to re-vitalize? How is technology helping or hindering you? I’d love to hear your stories–comment below!

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