Oral History for the “Quiet in the Land”

Janneken Smucker

I’ve read with interest the posts here from my colleagues  Ben Goossen on Digital History and Ted Maust on Public History, topics very near and dear to me in both my scholarship and teaching. Ben outlines some of the facets of digital history, particularly how digital technologies can provide increased access to historical sources. Ted considers what public history—historical interpretation that in some way engages with the general public rather than to fellow academic historians—can do and has done for Anabaptists. I’d like to draw on these threads by exploring the role of oral history, and how oral history poses particular opportunities and challenges for those of us conducting history among Anabaptist groups.

Much of my scholarly energy in recent years has involved oral history in one capacity or another. As a young historian working on contemporary history topics from the 1970s and ‘80s, it was a natural fit. Interviews with living subjects served as excellent primary sources for my senior seminar paper at Goshen College, about the origins of the Women’s Studies program at GC. When I began studying quilts from an academic perspective, my first paper was based on an oral history interview I conducted with my elderly grandmother about the quilts she and her Amish-Mennonite peers made as young women in the 1920s in eastern Ohio. I now regularly teach with oral history, working with my students to create digital public history projects, interpreting and providing access to archival oral history interviews, by building classroom/archive partnerships that take advantage of open source technologies.

Members of the Anabaptist faith have long valued oral tradition, as the stories from our ancestors have been a source of faith. So-called ethnic Mennonites remember the challenges of our forebearers as stories and folklore are passed down from one generation to the next. Perhaps Martyrs’ Mirror, with its tales of courage and conviction, is the ultimate collection of Anabaptist oral tradition. Books like Martyrs Mirror, Amish Roots, and MennoFolk: Mennonite and Amish Folk Traditions collect and interpret some oral accounts that have resonance to many members of the Anabaptist tradition.1

tonguescrew

Sons of Maeyken Wens search for the tongue screw used to silence her among her ashes, Antwerp, 1573. Engraving by Jan Luiken in Martyrs Mirror, v. 2, p. 661 of Dutch edition. Source: Rijksmuseum via GAMEO

But oral history itself is a historical method distinct from oral tradition. Oral history really only became possible in our current understanding of the term with the availability of audio recording technologies, which enabled the interview—the dialogue between the interviewer and narrator—to become permanently fixed as a primary source. One of the most straightforward definitions of oral history comes from Donald Ritchie: “An oral history interview generally consists of a well-prepared interviewer questioning an interviewee and recording their exchange in audio or video format.  Recordings of the interview are transcribed, summarized, or indexed and then placed in a library or archives.”2

My brief search for Mennonite (the wing of Anabaptism I most closely identify with) oral histories turned up archived collections of interviews (among others) with Russian Mennonite immigrants, World War I conscientious objectors (with digitized audio!), Mennonite women from Manitoba discussing their childbirth experiences, and video interviews collected by the Brethren Mennonite Council for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Interests. Perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of the oral history collections I discovered are from Canadian organizations or are interviews conducted with individuals from Russian-Mennonite backgrounds. At the risk of overgeneralizing, I surmise that Amish and “Old Mennonites”—the really quiet of the land—have been less keen on recording oral histories. Maybe individual life stories have seemed not to reflect the humility for which these groups have historically striven, or members of these less worldly affiliations have been reluctant to record their stories using modern technologies for the permanent record. In my own research, I’ve encountered this. What if the narrator is from a plain community and does not feel comfortable with the research, the technology, the release forms, or the archive? Can we still do oral history?

Two current tenets of oral history which squarely place this methodology in relationship with public history are “informed consent” and “shared authority.” By informed consent, oral historians mean that the interviewee/narrator has a full understanding of the purpose and potential uses of the interview. They should understand that they are “on the record” while being able to restrict aspects of their interview for future use if necessary. Typically, this is handled through a release form granting the interviewer permission to record, use, and/or archive the interview. Historian Michael Frisch popularized the term “shared authority” in relationship to oral and public history, suggesting that historians are not the sole arbiters of historical interpretation, but instead share that authority with those from the public with whom we dialogue and engage—especially those sharing their testimony through oral history interviews.3

Amish Country Quilts

Carol Highsmith, Amish Country Quilts, c. 1990. Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

When I was conducting fieldwork among Amish quilt entrepreneurs, I was hesitant to pull out legal forms for these women to sign, let along my fancy little digital audio recorder. Although I strived to make these informants feel comfortable speaking with me, I don’t think I did particularly well with “informed consent” guideline. I typically told the proprietor of a shop I was a student studying quilts (true, even though I was a PhD student, who hoped to eventually translate my research into a book) and asked if I could ask her a few questions. These women (and the occasional man) were usually quite willing to talk. They were accustomed to tourists asking lots of questions about quilts, and they typically had an almost scripted answer to my questions about how the design, production, and sale of quilts functioned. I did not quote these informants directly in my text, since I did not record the conversations, although their responses certainly served as evidence that informed my interpretation of the subject. In the endnotes to my book, I refer to these non-interviews as “conversations” rather than as “interviews.”4

In 2003, when Emma Witmer, the Old Order Mennonite proprietor of the longest operating quilt shop in Lancaster County, agreed to give an interview for Q.S.O.S. – Quilters Save Our Stories, an oral history project of the non-profit Quilt Alliance, she declined to be recorded or have her photograph taken. But she agreed to tell her story, presumably feeling informed and giving consent, as she signed a release form. Interviewer Heather Gibson took notes rather than record the audio, and the online “transcript” begins with the disclaimer: “notes from the interviewer—Emma Witmer is an Old Order Mennonite. The interview was recorded on pencil and paper at Emma Witmer’s request. Portions of the interview that were not recorded verbatim are noted in brackets. There are no photographs.” With this note, can we even consider this interview as “oral history,” at least based on Ritchie’s definition that an oral history must be recorded in audio or video? I drew on this interview extensively in my research on the origins of the quilt industry in Lancaster County, but is this as reliable of a source as I think it is since it is based on notes, which ultimately are an interpretation of the interview rather than the verbatim interview itself? Is it more or less reliable than the “conversations” I had with other shop owners?5

In contrast, one particular Amish informant was quite willing to go on the record, signing the forms and having his voice recorded. He knew I was writing about his father, an Amish businessman who bought quilts from his co-religionists and sold them to New York quilt dealers. He was the expert. I was the student. Here I think I came close to achieving the elusive “shared authority,” with his interview completely transforming my understanding of the relationship of Amish individuals to the market for quilts. When I wrote articles drawing on what I learned from him, I sent him drafts, and he gave me feedback. I even invited him to attend my dissertation defense, where he engaged in the discussion along with my committee members (he continues to relish telling people about that momentous event).

Excerpt from interview with Benuel Riehl, conducted by Janneken Smucker, May 13, 2008.

Throughout my career as a historian, I am continually reminded of the power of the first hand accounts gained through oral history. But I worry about what interviews we might never have the opportunity to record because of the challenges of conducting interviews with some Anabaptist groups. I also fear for the collections of interviews that have been recorded—like the ones with Mennonite women about childbirth—but remain inaccessible, on analog cassette tapes in faraway archives. Too often oral history projects result in amazing resources that are virtually undiscoverable, although new technologies have made it increasingly affordable and possible to provide access. And most importantly, we need to find ways to ensure that we as historians freely share our authority with our publics, listening not only as a way to elicit details of the past, but also as a way to check our perceived expertise as historians.


  1.  Thieleman J. van Braght, I. Daniel Rupp, and Thieleman J. van Braght, The Bloody Theatre, or Martyrs’ Mirror, of the Defenceless Christians: Who Suffered and Were Put to Death for the Testimony of Jesus, Their Savior, from the Time of Christ until the Year A.D. 1660 (Near Lampeter Square, Lancaster Co., Pa.: David Miller, 1837); John A Hostetler, Amish Roots: A Treasury of History, Wisdom, and Lore (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989); Ervin Beck, MennoFolk: Mennonite and Amish Folk Traditions (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2004). 
  2. Donald A. Ritchie, Doing Oral History, 3rd edition (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), 1. 
  3.  Michael H Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990); Michael Frisch, “From A Shared Authority to the Digital Kitchen, and Back,” in Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, ed. Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski (Philadelphia, Pa.; Walnut Creek: Pew Center for Arts & Heritage ; Distributed by Left Coast Press, 2011). 
  4.  See Janneken Smucker, Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013). 
  5.  Emma Witmer, interview by Heather Gibson, October 20, 2003, Quilt Alliance, Quilters’ S.O.S.—Save Our Stories, Library of Congress, American Folklife Center, http://quiltalliance.org/portfolio/qsos-emma-witmer/

One thought on “Oral History for the “Quiet in the Land”

  1. This is so cool, Janneken! Thanks for sharing your experience, particularly the steps you’ve taken to reconcile historical methods with the concerns of plain communities. If you ever need another (inexperienced, unqualified) interviewer, let me know!

    Like

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