Category: Intellectual History and Methods

[Cover of…So They Understand: Cultural Issues in Oral History]

…So They Understand: Cultural Issues in Oral History

By William Schneider. 2002. Logan: Utah State University Press. vii + 198 pages.


Reviewed by Darla Wells, University of Louisiana at Lafayette

[Review length: 637 words • Review posted in 2004]


In So They Understand, William Schneider successfully explains the practical challenges involved in collecting, representing, and preserving oral history in an ethical and culturally sensitive manner. The author introduces his subject with a story from South Africa, a tale about two bulls in a kraal. Nelson Mandela once told this story in order to break up a Communist Party meeting. During a 1997 graduation at the University of the North in South Africa, Mandela told the story of the two bulls again; this time, Mandela was telling about telling the story. In all, there are four stories: first, the story of the two bulls; second, the story of the two bulls as told to break up the Communist Party meeting; third, the story as told at the graduation; fourth, the story that introduces William Schneider’s book. Another possible telling is implied: that by the person who explained the stories to the author. The complexity of storytelling events and the possibilities for changes in meaning and context that accompany each performance are thus neatly introduced.

Part I describes Schneider’s career and outlines his approach to collecting and using oral history. The author stresses the curator’s role in the interpretation of stories and describes several technological data storage and retrieval methods that he has used in Alaska and South Africa. The oral traditions of a place are used to develop culturally appropriate guidelines for managing the collected history material. Schneider emphasizes the importance of a holistic approach to collection management, one that balances preservation with access. By preservation, he means more than physical storage; preservation of meaning and context are also stressed.

Part II addresses the genres that overlap to make up oral history. Schneider makes connections to all the usual subgenres—personal narrative, life histories, anecdotes, legends—and also points to a few that are less often thought of as oral history, such as public meetings and forums, court hearings, and television reporting. He describes the role of the interviewer, the value of a thematic approach as a spur to elaboration, and the importance of creativity in archiving and publication or other media production of the narratives. An important emphasis is given to the interplay of performance, collaboration, interpretation, and reinterpretation over time by and for audiences other than the original.

Part III describes the public life of oral history materials. Private and public uses of this material are different, and public usage differs by degrees. When a person gives permission for an interview to be part of an archive, he or she does not necessarily mean for that material to be placed in full on the Internet or adopted whole cloth in scholarly books without proper credit or financial remuneration. The curator’s role becomes vitally important in such cases, as she or he must set up the rules, permissions, and format of the collections. Issues of ethics are dealt with throughout the book, and especially at the end of Part III, in a sensitive and practical manner.

This is a very timely and accessible approach to the problems of maintaining an oral history archive, or archives in general. Schneider’s book is so useful precisely because it offers ways to deal with the material products of narrative collection and suggests how scholars can try to preserve the context and cultural validity of such material. Schneider also links the oral narrative to material culture in many cases, so that people can actually see the related physical works. For example, he describes the University of Alaska’s museum catalog called The Artists behind the Work. The cover features pictures of the artists, while photographs of their works and the stories that accompany them are presented inside. This coherent and visual product illustrates that creative use of collected material is the only way to prevent collected oral history from moldering unseen in a dark archive.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.