TALKING THROUGH TIME WITH ORAL HISTORY
Anthony Graham - September 21, 2016
Examining previously recorded oral history interviews has the potential to provide both a goldmine of quality sources and a large amount of frustration. Previously recorded oral histories can provide sources for in depth analysis with lost-passed generations where conducting an oral history is impossible. Locked away in the sources, the interviewers themselves can also become sources. The Roske collection at UNLV special collections contains the recollections of longtime Las Vegas residents of generations long past. As we researched for Ready to Roar, undergraduates of different generations worked with each other across time to bring the first hand experiences of Las Vegas in the 1920s to the foreground. When UNLV students from today read the oral histories collected in the Roske collection by undergraduate students, in the 1970s they create a three way conversation between millennials, baby boomers, and the lost generation.
In the early 1970s Professor Ralph Roske began training students in Oral History interview skills and assigning them to interview a “Las Vegas Old Timer.” Many of these senior citizens had first come to Nevada at the turn of the century, attracted to the state by the mining booms in Lincoln, Nye, and Esmeralda Counties. The fall of the mining towns in the 1920s coincided with the rise of Las Vegas, leading many of them to move south decades after the boom. Roske’s undergraduates, with audio tape recorders in hand, went out into the community and chronicles priceless interviews with the aging members of the Las Vegas community. All of the tapes were standalone interviews without transcripts, making the process of gathering information quite time-consuming.
Students often ask what to do when they encounter an interview in which the narrator makes factual errors. It is important to remember that in oral history it is not the exact details that are important, but the effects of these events upon the narrators and how they are perceived. The inexperience of the student interviewers led to fluctuations in the quality of interviews. Students practiced different interview methods, some sticking close to the script, others engaging in casual conversation. They also showed different levels of preliminary research with some being able to give a good quality back and forth and others unable to understand the context of the interview. Accessibility to interviews also varied.
Listening to Maria Vlaovich’s oral history reveals an interesting family dynamic because her grandson conducted the interview as part of a class project. The interviewer repeatedly attempts to trigger his grandmother’s commonly rehearsed personal stories and appears quite surprised when the answers to his questions are not as he expected. It is apparent by the way the interview flows that the interviewer is the one who really wants to do the interview and it is the narrator who is not fully engaged, or even reluctant to speak about some issues. At multiple times through the interview Maria stops mid-sentence and states, “no more talk.” Then after a break in the tape and an obvious passage of time the interview would pick up again.
In the Muriel Euchner interview we are given the perspective of an individual who grew up in the waning years of the mining boom. She provides great details of her life after leaving Nevada as she traveled the country and later the world while working in show business. Despite Euchner’s fascinating story, modern students are often frustrated by the presence of random voices jumping into the conversation.
Euchner also proved to be a difficult interview. On the tape, she often argues about how to spell locations and names and where the tape player should be located on the table. She also criticizes how the interviewer takes notes and tells him what would make a good project instead of the one he was working on. She dictates the terms of the interview by criticizing questions she didn’t feel were important and by refusing to shift gears mid-story. Having gone into the interview with the notion that they would exclusively be discussing Tonopah, she attempts to shy away from anything that would deviate from that subject. She states, “it took me five years to write my book… we don’t have the time to go into that.” In this case the narrator lets her tell the stories she wants to tell and because of this decision, we are left with an interview that leaves more questions than answers, though still useful.
The CE Hansly interview demonstrates the necessity of holding a pre-interview before conducting an oral history and the importance of picking a proper location for taping. This quick 25 minute interview took place in one of the worst possible locations for an interview. In the background of the recording there are sounds of plates clanging, machinery, random numbers being shouted, music playing loudly, and motorcycles revving their engines that completely block anything the narrator says. Most of the interview consists of the narrator giving short answers or entirely blowing off the interviewer as it appears he has something better to do. The interview ends abruptly as the narrator leaves to go argue with a woman over either a bingo or keno card with no clear resolution.
Maria Vlaovich Oral History, 2/23/1976, (OH-01883). (Local Oral History Project-Roske). Special Collections, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.
Muriel Euchner Oral History, 12/26/1980, (OH-00548). (Local Oral History Project-Roske). Special Collections, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.
Muriel Euchner Oral history, 12/16/1980, (OH-00548). (Local Oral History Project-Roske). Special Collections, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.
CE Hensley Oral History, date unknown, (OH-00786). (Local Oral History Project-Roske). Special Collections, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.