Interviews or Oral History

Since the 1930s, folklorists have used “field interviews” to discover and preserve the oral traditions of the populations they study. By meeting with the older residents of a community, they hope to preserve the traditional knowledge, tales and legends, old songs and daily practices of the past. Historians have taken much longer to recognize the value of interviews and oral history, well after ethnologists, anthropologists and sociologists. Since the 1970s, historians have been collecting interviews of a more directed nature, focusing on specific events, primarily to shed light on how the participants understood those events as they were taking place, but also to better comprehend the symbolic power that events may acquire with time, and how people remember them.

With the arrival of recording technologies, interviews could be preserved in full, initially on vinyl records, then on tapes or cassettes and most recently in digital formats. Nowadays, interviews are often filmed as well. Listening to an interview lets one follow in detail the conversation between the interviewer (collector) and the interviewee (informant), along with all the silences, hesitations, inflexions and laughter. This means that historians and folklorists no longer depend on the notes and transcriptions of interviewers. Yet those notes and transcriptions are also necessary. They tell us the circumstances of the interview (the date, time, place, people present, etc.) and provide biographical information about the informants. Transcriptions help us understand what informants are saying when their accent or dialect are unfamiliar to the historian. This is the case with almost all the interview excerpts presented on this site. Interviews conducted during the 1970s by the Centre Acadien at the Université Sainte-Anne preserve the accounts of elderly residents of Clare, for the most part born in the 19th Century, who speak the oldest dialect of the region, Acadian or acadjonne. For anyone who speaks a more “standard” French, understanding these interviews can be difficult. This is why the authors of this site have transcribed the interviews themselves and provided adaptations in standard French.

The other interviews found here were not transcribed using the methods employed by the authors of this site, and indeed you will notice that transcription techniques differ considerably. While we prefer verbatim transcription (that is, word for word, emphasizing pronunciation and accent), others exercise a certain degree of interpolation and standardization of terms, which eliminates some of the orality of the original text. Finally, still others do not transcribe the interview at all, instead simply summarizing it, retaining only pure information without any trace of the original orality.

It goes without saying that when analyzing interviews or oral history, the historian must employ every available technique of historical criticism, analyzing not only what informants said, but how their remarks were transcribed. The subjects who were interviewed may have lied. They may have hidden details they found embarrassing or shameful. They may have exaggerated, or simply forgotten, details about the events or traditions they describe. In the case of the interviews presented here, these elderly individuals recount events that occurred when they were small children. Over the decades since then, age, time and the many things others have told them must surely have altered their memories. What people say depends as well on what questions they are asked. These people have talked about things the collectors asked them to talk about.