Controversy over Brooklyn neighborhood oral history project

Queen Ledger: Historical Underground Railroad meets Redevelopment meets Eminent Domain meets Oral History. Result: Embattled and embittered. The oral histories are part of the battle between city and residents, and methods used in the oral history have become a part of the controversy.

The Duffield Street neighborhood was the site of the underground railroad. Should all the homes be bought by the city and sold to a developer to be made into a parking lot?

At the fight’s core is a dispute between residents and the city about whether houses along Duffield Street were part of the Underground Railroad, and thus part of a crucial piece of national history that should be preserved.

The latest saga in this fierce battle between the city and its residents centers around collecting a proper oral history of the neighborhood. Residents claim that the oral history recorded by the city is false and riddled with errors.

Oral histories were recorded in late December 2005 and early January 2006. Residents were given transcripts of the interviews and allowed two weeks to review them for accuracy.

Residents aren’t happy with what they’re reading. They think it’s a deliberate attempt to sabatoge residents. Understandable, given the fact that their homes are at stake. But it may be the oral history methodology.

There are three—no, four—beefs that residents have with the oral historian’s practices:

  1. The oral historian, Doris Walters was hired by AKRF, “This is the same firm that was publicly exposed two summers ago during City Council hearings for being either incompetent or intentionally misleading.” Ouch. Strike one.
  2. Two weeks is insufficient time to review the transcript. (According to this discussion thread on the Oral History mailing list, time-for-review ranges from a month to 90 days. Not only is this shorter than the standard time, but the stakes of these transcripts is much, much higher.
  3. The transcripts appear to be way-too-literal. When the spoken word is exactly recorded, it makes for dull and frustrating reading. False starts and bobbles just flow on by in spoken word. On the printed page, they make for painful reading. Far more so, when it’s your own home that’s at stake.
    “Anyone who knows me, knows that I speak clearly and well,” Chatel said. “She made me sound like an idiot.”
    According to this Transcribing Style Guide, The transcript is a faithful representation of the audio recording:
    When transcribed from the tape, the transcript represents in type the words and extraneous sounds present in a tape-recorded oral history interview. The tape and its transcript—which is then edited—are primary historical sources. The sources are useful to scholars in many fields. […] Oral history is not an exercise in literary composition; the transcriber should avoid value judgments about the grammar or vocabulary of an interviewee. To retain validity in transcripts, most of the editing should be done by the interviewee. A transcript is at best an imperfect representation of an oral interview. The transcriber’s most important task is to render as close a replica to the actual event as possible. Accuracy, not speed, is the transcriber’s goal. [emphasis mine]
    There are some illuminating threads on the Oral History mailing list that address common practices, such as inserting the literal text for the first few pages, and then editing out common false starts later on. The, uh, November 2004 thread discussing keeping Ums, ers in the, er, transcript; The November 2004 discussion thread about, like, keeping “Like” in transcripts or like, you know, editing them all out and the February and March 2006 discussion about Oral History and Publications addresses common reactions of interviewees (eek!) when reading their own transcripts. In this case, common oral history practice of noting everything that happens during an interview is excaserbated by the atmosphere of distrust and uncertainty: They’re out to discredit me; they’re going to take away my home.
  4. Interview technique: Too much interruption.
    “She interrupted until I was so mixed up that I couldn’t even make out what I was trying to say in the first place,” Greenstein said. Chatel agreed that the questioning process confused her and disrupted the pace of her narrative. “She was always interrupting me and turning off the tape recorder,”
    Ouch, ouch, ouch. Not good. This does not fit common oral history standards. Donald Ritchie, in his book, Doing Oral History, discusses the possibility of framing questions to distort answers. In a counter-example of the description of adversarial or biased or leading questioning (“Wouldn’t you say…” is geared toward a certain hypothesis, for instance), Ritchie states,
    Start with broad, open-ended questions, allow the interviewee to talk broadly, ranging as far and wide as possible. Listen and make notes as the interviewee speaks, but do not interrupt. When it is clear that the person has exhausted the subject and stopped, go back nd ask specific follow-up questions, clarify point sof confusion or contradiction,a nd pursue details.[p 93, emphasis mine]
    Another good guide for interviewing and how to shape questions is in this PDF document [PDF. 752k], found on the Baylor University Web Guide to Oral History page for Thomas Charlton’s text, The Heart of Oral History: How to Interview. One salient point from the instructions,
    The interviewer should concentrate on asking one question at a time and avoid confronting the interviewee with complex, difficult-to-follow queries. Moreover, use words that the respondent will readily understand.
    Further, Charlton describes the place of the interviewer’s attitude.
    When a prepared local historian shows keen interest in the information recounted in an interview and appreciation for the respondent’s efforts, very positive results are possible. Interviewer praise for the respondent reinforces the permissive, receptive atmosphere so necessary to objective oral history at the local level. [emphsis mine]
    The article doesn’t describe the interviewer’s attitude as much as counter-productive behavior and its effect on the interviewees. 

These residents being interviewed for this oral history are already under duress. Their homes are threatened. And every subsequent action on the part of the government agencies and their contractors, whether misunderstood (literal transcription) or mis-applied (too little review time, hyper-interruptive interviews) only adds to the sense of threat.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on May 03, 2006 in • Oral history in the newsTranscription
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