What is the purpose of documenting oral history? Oddly enough this is a question that was not given much consideration prior to the midcentury. The public has generally relied on the interpretation of its collective history to be articulated via the masters of ivory towers but what about the interpretation of history from those that actually lived it? It is of crucial importance that a deep repository of oral history be documented so that true and unique perspectives are not lost to the ether of time. For example, many of us are all dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic in our own shared way. We quarantine, wear protective face mask when venturing outside for essential household items, and we motivate ourselves to stay productive while working from home. This may be the experience for a large group of us, but, this is not the reality more many more. Some people completely disregard the CDC protocols and social distancing and believe the virus to be a hoax. Some people are out of work and are now trying creative methods to jumpstart business ideas during the crisis. Other people are students, both grade school and college level that experience Covid-19 in ways adults do not. The point is that for all of these various groups of people, each experience is different, each collective shares the same predicament but with varying degrees. Many decades from now the collecting of varying narratives give a much more nuanced history than that of the monolithic generalized narrative. This is but one example of how oral history is important to us in order to understand the human experience.
Here’s another thought on why oral history should be important to us, ask yourself this, how do you want to be remembered and who do you want telling your story? These types of questions serve as a just one of the driving factors that keeps my desires for public history burning. I would like to imagine that it is in part, the reason why Louis Armstrong was such a dedicated self trained archivist. Armstrong believed in preserving history for posterity but he was also aware of his own significance in history. Without ego, Louis recorded hundreds of reel tapes that let us in on his world and how he viewed it. Anything that wasn’t explicitly stated all one has to do is put a few simple pieces together and a general sentiment can be gathered as to how Armstrong may have felt about a particular subject or matter. His dedication toward maintaining truthful narrative, one that minimizes speculation is an enduring treasure. As a public historian, collections such as the Armstrong archives do more than just paint a clearer picture of life in 20th century, it gives you one that is from the perspective of a iconic figure yet, due to Louis’ nature and character, it is simultaneously down to earth and relatable.
Combinations like this are rare and the inherent nature of the figure make for a bulk of the material to be interesting if not entertaining. As I find myself working from home, I ponder from time to time about what Louis would do during the current pandemic. Needless to say, I don’t think it would be that hard to figure out.