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Transforming the Methodology

In the 1960s, there was no question that the Corporation's oral history would be recorded on audiotapes and that its audience would most likely read the transcripts and never listen to the tapes. Yet by 1996, when the Corporation decided to update its history, technology had provided the option of recording onto video. Carnegie Corporation asked OHRO to reflect on how video might augment or diminish the process of oral history. This request sparked the idea of exploring the impact of video interviewing on both the methodology of oral history and the representation of history.

In exploring how to use the new medium, the OHRO concluded that the form of oral history used in scholarly settings involves not just a conversation, but a reflection on that conversation. The interviewee controls what happens to the transcript: he or she reads it, may make revisions, and reflects on it before making the decision about how much of the interview to release at any one time. The transcript is treated as if it were a book and edited carefully. This is oral history at its most scholarly moment. The conversation itself is not the most precious moment, as it is in journalism; rather, it is the reflection on that conversation, which becomes the document of record in the form of a reviewed, written transcript.

For the new Carnegie Corporation interviews, OHRO decided to continue the process of interviewing people on audio and transcribing that information. Then subjects were approached and asked if they would be interviewed on video about selected topics, with the understanding that the video was meant for public dissemination. This understanding was important because it was in keeping with Carnegie Corporation's mission to disseminate knowledge, and wider dissemination in video formats is increasingly seen as an essential step in oral history's future. So participants were told that they would be asked to sign a legal release that would open the interview immediately and to imagine that they were speaking to a wide public audience. They were also told that these aspects of the process might change the way they told their stories and so were encouraged to actively determine how they wanted to share their insights with a broader public.