Oral tradition

Collecting voices

In general, the collection and organization of oral testimonies are techniques not included in the domain of library or archival studies, and, therefore, there is no development of concepts and methodology in this regard. Such work is often left to historians, anthropologists, linguists, and sociologists. However, the emergence of new categories of libraries (community, rural or indigenous ones, for example), new trends in historical and popular archives and the recognition of new responsibilities by information professionals (recovery of endangered languages and traditions, preservation of intangible heritage and cultural identity) lead to the slow and progressive inclusion of these activities within the ones of libraries.

The collection of oral tradition by means of interviews recording could be considered, broadly, as part of the policies of library acquisition. This activity collects information not available on other media (especially in textual documents), information on events, processes and experiences that is expressed by witnesses and participants.

Work with oral sources "is an art, not an exact science" (Willa Baum), and is "violence over the nature of the material to provide it with a new degree of relevance" (Sandro Portelli). The researcher who starts working with oral sources must face a series of specific characteristics of orality:

  • It is necessary to recognize that oral communication has its rules, codes and principles, totally different from those belonging to written culture. Oral tradition is based on memory, a subjective basis modeled by the present, by the social environment, by individual psychology and by the circumstances of the moment. Valid or interesting contents may appear diluted, disordered, mixed or submerged.
  • Each interview (orality gathering process) produces knowledge that is unique and exclusive to the interaction between two persons (interviewee and interviewer). That knowledge does not exist as such before the talk: it is generated precisely there. Therefore, and given the participation of two people in the process, there is a double subjectivity that must be taken into account when interpreting the results. On the one hand, the interviewee will shape the researcher, and on the other, s/he will adapt to the interviewee. From such adaptations to the circumstances will come a certain subjective knowledge, which perhaps, under other circumstances, would be different (even when talking about the same subject).
  • Within this subjectivity, the strong link between memory-oblivion/silence must be taken into account. Every racconto of the past is fruit of the present in which it occurs. Many aspects are forgotten or silenced according to the circumstances of the interview, or plunged into silence because they are not legitimized. Relations with the social sphere weigh heavily. It should be understood that the interviewee will silence many things before the interviewer, use defense mechanisms, refine their history and discourse, and adapt or avoid difficult or painful parts.