A Legacy of Listening

Using oral history to write a historical narrative in an audio tour.

By Samantha Blatt | September 21, 2017

Forrest C. Pogue (right) and General William Morris Hoge.

Forrest C. Pogue Photograph Archives, Murray State University.

In June 1944, as battered troops returned to the landing crafts waiting offshore from the front line at Normandy, a combat historian readied himself to bear witness to their stories. Forrest C. Pogue recorded firsthand accounts of surviving soldiers to document the effect of the invasion and the emotional response it—and the war—had on the soldiers’ lives. While Pogue is often cited as a pioneer in modern practices in the field, oral history itself is much older than World War II: cave paintings, folklore, and spoken accounts of family history handed down through generations have all served as records for historians and the public to help trace a collective heritage.

Pogue’s tool of choice was the magnetic recorder, an analog technology developed at the turn of the 20th century that used steel tape or wire as the recording medium. Using this bulky equipment and taking the risk he could attract the attention of snipers, Pogue interviewed dozens of troops. He recognized the significance of capturing the live experience of war and understood that a soldier’s voice added considerable value to the historical event. His work helped legitimize oral history as an academic profession, and “the interview” became the basis for this new practice.

Pogue and his methods influenced a small team at the Chemical Heritage Foundation (now Science History Institute) to use oral history as we developed an audio walking tour, a companion project for our exhibition Things Fall Apart. The museum exhibits explore the life and afterlife of material things and the fight to preserve them, while the tour invites visitors to witness and participate in the exhibition in real time, outside the museum’s walls. We’ve conducted interviews with leading preservationists, historians, and small-business owners who offer explanations about why Philadelphia has emerged as a national example of preservation efforts. An hour-long stroll around Old City, a beloved historic neighborhood in Philadelphia, helps visitors understand how the city’s urban landscape has changed during 400 years of redevelopment. The tour explains how preservationists have sought to retain the historical integrity of the city while fighting off a barrage of threats to the buildings and artifacts. Just as Pogue captured the history of the Normandy invasion through the spoken word, we have used oral histories to build an audio narrative that explores the neighborhood’s historical heritage and the radical changes that have both disrupted and enabled Old City’s history to evolve.

Pogue’s use of analog technology remained the preferred method for recording oral-history interviews until digital breakthroughs in the early 2000s. Analog is fixed in time and space: to transfer the media to someone else, you need to make a physical copy. Digital media, of course, allow for easier and more immediate access and dissemination. To create our audio tour we adapted Pogue’s techniques for the 21st century so we could not only capture history but share it readily. We recorded our interviews digitally and brought our interviewees’ voices together in one place to give our listeners easy access.

Oral historians help us preserve and remember the stories often omitted from history books, the stories of ordinary people that supply vivid images of the very essence of daily life. We used oral history to gather the stories of preservation and decay in Old City, and by doing so we created historical records that also will eventually become ephemeral objects in need of care. We continue the cycle of decay and preservation. Pogue’s interviews have been catalogued, digitized, and made accessible to the public through the Library of Congress and the George C. Marshall Foundation, cementing and further contributing to his legacy and work; our interviews are housed digitally in the Center for Oral History and in our museum and library.

In the nearly 75 years since Pogue preserved the voices of soldiers fresh from the battlefield, the demands and practices of oral history have undergone significant change. There is an increased belief that we must document, record, and preserve everything. And while organizations like StoryCorps and Groundswell have facilitated easy access to storage space, a crucial component of oral history in the 21st century—and companies like Apple, Google, and Samsung have made it possible for anyone to act as an interviewer—we ask ourselves, in the quest to preserve personal and community histories, how can we predict if and how well the stories will survive? How can we ensure that people continue to follow in Pogue’s footsteps? And if everyone is busy recording, is anybody listening?