Negotiation of the story
The trust that is endowed to oral history researchers by those interviewed does not stop when the recorder is turned off. There is a responsibility to represent the stories told as accurately and as sensitively as possible in the final history product. If history was simply a matter of recording ‘facts’ or as a collection of individual narratives, the writing of the history would be quite straightforward. However, as Linda Shopes (2007) has highlighted, since the 1980s and 1990s, oral histories have shifted towards explication of meaning and the creation of a collective narrative. As there are likely to be discrepancies in the stories told associated with issues of memory and perspective, negotiating this narrative and interpreting the experiences in a way that benefits the community can be fraught with difficulties and tensions. As Patricia Lundy and Mark McGovern (2006) have pointed out, the production of a history raises the issue of ‘truth’ and whose ‘truth’ should be told; that in many community oral histories, there is a tension between ‘truth’ and partiality. This is particularly difficult in oral history projects located in communities that have endured years of trauma between different social groups or when one group tries to co-opt the narrative in some way, either omitting or over-emphasising the stories of specific groups.
The lack of controversy experienced by the researchers for the oral history projects outlined here in regards to negotiating the final history may have had an element of good luck, but the processes followed were also likely to have contributed to easing the passage of the collective narrative. This included having clear expectations regarding roles and responsibilities of all involved from the start of the projects. In Sarah’s case, she also relied on the accepted authority of a couple of well-respected community elders who had been very involved in the establishment and development of the Kindergarten. These women read the manuscript to ensure the information was accurate and that the narrative provided a balanced account. In the Theodore case, while one of the researchers wrote the first draft, this draft underwent considerable editing and redrafting by the main group of community members involved in the project who negotiated amongst themselves as to how that final narrative should be portrayed. Importantly, the community members ensured the introduction of Anyone who drinks the Dawson water highlighted the final narrative was not definitive ‘... this is not a precise history of Theodore. We have not set out to document a chronology of events’ (2014, p. 1). When the book was published, this proved to be an important clause as some members of the community were upset as they had not been invited to be interviewed for the project. This clause helped placate these community members and opened up the opportunity for them to contribute to the oral history collection of the museum.
While archival data were used in both projects to verify dates and events and to corroborate across different stories to help establish accuracy and the development of main ideas, we recognised the final story in each case needed to be seen as real and relevant to the respective communities. The processes of negotiation and inclusion used demonstrated we valued the idea of ‘shared authority’ as outlined by Frisch (1990). That is, while we recognised our own contributions to the development of the narrative, we also recognised our responsibility to allow the voices of the community to dominate the narrative and to not misrepresent or take out of context the stories that were being told (Shopes, 2007).
The oral history projects outlined in this chapter demonstrate considerable community resilience within the communities where the projects took place. The projects also provided avenues for community members and university staff to learn to work together as they negotiated their ways through the interview and writing stages. These processes reflect the core ways engaged research can help build community resilience through collective problem solving, action, learning and capacity building and sharing of resources. In both projects, community members and university researchers collaborated to work through the logistics of the projects from a basis of trust and through the careful building of relationships. This trust allowed them to ensure the final products were acceptable to the communities and researchers alike.