This year’s Congress of the Canadian Historical Association (CHA) took place at Concordia University from 28 May – 1 June in Montreal with over 500 delegates in attendance. As the largest gathering of historians in Canada each year, the CHA Congress offers participants both an opportunity to network with colleagues across the country while also discussing both scholarly and mundane issues that are especially pertinent to Canadian universities.
The undisputed central theme of the congress was oral history and its place in contemporary scholarship, reflected most notably in the choice of Joy Parr (University of Western Ontario) as this year’s keynote speaker. Parr’s work linking the changing use of spaces in the environment and oral history is in many ways emblematic of the recent surge in environmental history and its developing methodologies.
Her recent book, Sensing Changes: Technologies, Environments, and the Everyday, 1953-2003 (2009) explores the consequences of state-driven construction projects on rural and First Nations communities while contextualizing and mapping change over time upon individual bodies. Her keynote address, ‘“Don’t Speak for Me”: Oral History amongst Vulnerable Populations’ also raised many issues and challenges facing historians embarking upon historical projects that utilize oral sources.
The list of difficulties facing historians that use oral sources is long: criticism of the selectiveness of oral testimonies-as-narratives often combines with the perception that their inclusion will create a relativistic and problematic relationship with more archival approaches. This reveals both the problem of a haphazard methodological approach to scholarly work and the potential for a fundamental disconnectedness with historical periods or individuals that are effectively inaccessible through oral narratives. This last point also touches upon that old (and sometimes tired) debate of whether history is essentially a social science or part of the humanities. The firm link between oral history and social science methodologies in some ways reinforces this division and further prompts us to reexamine the life story of our discipline.
Nevertheless, this has not deterred initiatives such as Concordia’s Center for Oral History and Digital Storytelling from creating comprehensive resources for both scholars and students. Focusing upon Canadian labour history, human rights and communities in Montreal, each project associated with the centre utilizes high-tech components that both teach skills and provide fora for the discussion of new approaches to collecting oral evidence. One of these – ‘Montreal Life Stories’ – is especially helpful in providing step-by-step information on chronicling life stories, dealing with translation, providing help with interview structures, and negotiating ethical issues. For students thinking of undertaking oral history projects, this is both an invaluable and dynamic tool.
As a historian of early modern media and culture, I have sometimes felt disconnected from developments in oral history. I have realized that this is a grave mistake. Negotiating past oralities and linking them to the cultures of print and manuscript often require an engagement with questions of community (including collective cultural production), memory, and even ethics. While narratives (and meta-narratives) to earlier historical periods has found purchase among post-modernist historians, more engagement and conversation with the dynamics of modern oral histories will enable historians to move this process forward and begin to bridge this widening rift.