Miroslav Vaněk: Around the Globe. Rethinking Oral History with Its Protagonists. Prague, Karolinum Press, 2013.
Institute of Contemporary History
The Academy of Science of the Czech Republic
A new book by Miroslav Vanek, a pioneer of oral history in the Czech Republic and the former president of the International Oral History Association (2010–2012), represents an interesting and unusual contribution to the ongoing discussion about theoretical and methodological issues of oral history. The book was prepared as a revised and extended version of the Czech publication published in 2008 (On Oral History with Its Founders and Protagonists, Prague, The Academy of Science of the Czech Republic’s Institute of Contemporary History, 2008). The book is the author’s first attempt to introduce important international figures in the field of oral history including their personal recollections and views on the future development of the method. English version will make the interviews accessible to a wider audience.
The focus of the book and the aim of published interviews are not an attempt to create a partial “history of oral history”. Here the aim is to show how internationally prominent researchers whose work has significantly contributed to the development of oral history can differ in their views on current and future themes concerning oral history. This heterogeneity of specific views and positions does not divert them from their common goal – to develop oral history in historiography as well as in other social sciences. The author, through the wide range of international contacts, has recorded in years 2007–2008 a total amount of thirteen structured interviews with leading experts in oral history from all around the world (Sydney, Lisbon, Guadalajara, Rome, and London). There are recorded interviews with such persons as David King Dunaway, Ronald Grele, Elizabeth Millwood, Alexander von Plato, Alessandro Portelli, Alistair Thomson, Paul Thompson and many others. The interviews create the core of the book.
In the preface the author outlines theoretical background of interviewed scholars. The next chapter is devoted to the interviews’ circumstances and selection of narrators. The interviews themselves are structured according five thematic spheres: 1) when and how the interviewees first encountered oral history; 2) what they indicate as the main advantage of oral history; 3) their views on oral history critics; 4) their opinion on the future and development of oral history; 5) any possible advice they would like to share with Czech oral historians. The English version of interviews collection is extended by two additional questions. The first one, inspired by the Michael Frisch’s shared authority concept, is devoted to the theme of narrators’ participation (of witnesses in general) in preparation of final results of oral history projects. The second added question focuses on the coexistence of oral historians on the one hand and journalists on the other. All scholars answered these questions via email correspondence realized in 2013.
The selection of interviewed individuals and discussed themes was, for several reasons, given more by the circumstances (possibilities of meeting and limited time during conferences) than by a previously conceived plan. Despite these difficulties narrators selected can be considered as a representative sample. We can meet here with real doyens of oral history such as Paul Thompson, Ronald Grele, who was engaged into oral history under the guidance of Charles Morrissey and remembers it during the interview. There are included representatives of older and middle generation who developed oral history in the 1980s, as well as representatives of relatively young generation, who nevertheless are fully established and proven in their field. We can meet here also with the generation of historians (such as Alexander Freund) emerging de facto in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Reflection of historical development is interestingly compared to ideological spectrum of the interviewed narrators’ early research work.
Miroslav Vanek does not mediate only narrators’ opinions and beliefs; he tries to summarize them and also partially make his own interpretations. The book is concluded by a study dedicated to rules and ethics of oral history research. The author projects here his own specific experiences with work of unprofessional journalists and documentarians in the Czech Republic. According to him, the main problem lies in simplifying journalist-documentarian approaches of self-styled oral historians as well as in activities of various memory institutions that are (as in the most Eastern European countries) frequently ideologically motivated. Some of these newly founded memory institutions interpret the recent past tendentiously and in disregarding narrators’ rights, with a blatant sensationalist angle.
The collected interviews with leading experts in the field of oral history show that in basic theoretical and practical questions (regarding the discipline future as well) Czech experiences and practice concur with the international trend. However, on closer inspection there are a few nuances in which Czech oral history differs. Czech (not only Czech) oral history faces an arduous task – to resist ideologizing views and perhaps even attempts to reinterpret history in a very subjective way which is often quite remote from factual reality. This threat does not only apply to oral history, but to contemporary history as a whole. This situation is similar in many other former Eastern Bloc countries. Miroslav Vanek sees the solution of this problem in focusing research on groups of the so-called “common people”. If these groups are not re-integrated into history, the interpretation of our recent past focusing mainly on victories and, to some degree, on defeats will continue to be incomplete, black-and-white and, essentially, inaccurate.
Around the Globe is based on oral history with oral historians and about oral history. It is a unique publication prepared for anyone interested in oral history, humanities and social sciences. Of course, we can discuss why the imaginary “sample” of oral history protagonists is represented only by those included in the book and not by other people (for example, Latin Americans, Scandinavians, French and other representatives of African and Asian countries). But this is just a red herring to cover the overall benefit of this unique and impressive work.