Oral History from Professor Nouraei Perspective/2

Necessity of comprehensive approach in the oral history of executive agencies

Maryam Asadi Jafari
Translated by Natalie Haghverdian


Professor Morteza Nouraei says the oral history project of the executive agencies is subject-oriented, not person-centered! Hence, managers shall not be interviewed. One of the damages to these projects is that they first want to interview the authorities. While interviews shall be conducted with the staff members at all levels. A procedural approach more or less guarantees the health of the interviews.
According to the Iran Oral History website, the first part of the interview with Professor Morteza Nouraei covered the what(s) and why(s) of the oral history. The article below explores his point of view on the "Oral History Project of the Executive Agencies".

* Now in Iran, we have two leading streams in the field of oral history: one is the oral history of executive agencies and the oral history of the Revolution and the War. Let's start with the oral history of the executive agencies. This issue was approved by the Cabinet in July of 2016. The National Library and Archives Organization has been responsible for its implementation. Each organization sends staff members to the National Library's oral history workshops and then begins collecting information and interviewing. What is the effect of this process in your opinion?

Record of the Oral History of the executive agencies was one of the tasks untouched which was thankfully, approved by the government. However, involvement of the staff members as interviewers means "registering the history during working hours". History during office hours means: “Its two o’clock and everybody has to finish for the day. In fact, history during office hours is very formal, crude and fragile. In the best case scenario, they collect a series of data to get their salaries. This can be positive or negative. It is, negative because the data is merely collected during office hours. Even the official history that is written earlier is of lower importance in the judgment of the historians, let alone the history that they already perceive it to be unreliable.

* Do you mean that the interviewer is not interested in spending time recording an interview outside the office hours?

For a career like oral history recording - the scope of which is love, interest, and innate power - you cannot nominate anyone from within a system to be a historian! Since we are familiar with the administrative system, the interviewer may put the tape recorder in front of the interviewee and no active interview takes place. I have not seen the work of those friends who have conducted the oral history of the executive agencies. But they are in the office space. So someone who is appointed from within an organization to conduct the oral history of his respective agency likes to do it during office hours.

* Do you want to say that oral history requires a lot of patience, competence, energy and time?

Yes. The interviewee might say that he has time for an interview 8 o’clock at night. Even in one of my notes I wrote that in Iran, an interview room has to be established. You invite people to sit there and then interview them. Is it even possible for anyone to sit within four walls and a room and talk? I think other oral historians also comment. In my opinion, even if they go to the oral history workshop, they may not be able to realize the goals of that organization. Hence, the results are doubtful.

* Imagine an employee fulfills all the pre-interview preparation steps - like studying documents - and allocates enough time for interview. Will there not be a good output yet?

I have seen the type of office work from other channels. They are struggling with time. The second concern about the oral history of the agencies is that they think that something must be done; right or wrong. That is, they don’t care about the quality of the output. Because they have no responsibility against the output. Since I am familiar with the oral history system of the United States, they appoint people outside the institution for oral history recording. Because these people are sharper and observe better. Organizational employees are familiar with the underlying system, but recording oral history by these staff members will not incorporate desirable results. A while ago, one organization provided us with 40 CDs including interviews with Isfahan Islamic Revolution Activists. Unfortunately, nothing special came out of it and they have merely collected some oral memories. It was as if they had asked the interviewee to introduce themselves, and they had gone telling their whole biography. This form of interview is not oral history.

* So, do you think oral history courses is sufficient to train these individuals?

The oral history workshop should be updated. I might be well experienced myself, but my studies on oral history interview style and prose continues. If an administrations has no choice but to choose a staff member as an oral historian then they should have access to high quality oral history training courses to compensate the shortcomings and problems. But who manages these courses? At the last session of the Oral History Association, the discussion was about if the trainers of oral history courses are competent and qualified? Have they published works in this area? So if executives agencies intend to participate in oral history workshops, they have to ensure the quality. Undoubtedly these bring us to standards. There should be an authority to verify the workshops. Anyway, I think that institutes and government agencies can be sensitive to the results of oral history interviews.

* These workshops are arranged by provincial branches of national library organization and are scheduled to check the interviews at any stage and fix the shortcomings. Does this help to improve the oral history output?

It is good to have supervision.

* What is your suggestion to improve this process? For example, perhaps the cooperation of the staff and the oral historian is a good solution.

Oral history is a collective work. Individuals might be trained for active interviewing, or someone else uses reference documents to conduct active interviews. Three or four groups may work together. In any case, continuous training seems to be a good solution. People involved with oral history should be trained and experienced. Training does not mean that oral history is defined in workshops. They have to raise their own problems and concerns and talk to someone who has already gone through. This individual should train others and solve their problems in writing and interviewing. The highest focus in oral history is on archiving, and production of proper and active interviews. So, we have to train a lot of interviewers within the administrative system. They do not necessarily have to be editors. That is, they can only enrich the archives of the institutions. This much is enough for this stage in history.

* The diversity, plurality and scope of work in the oral history of the executive agencies is very large. From Governance to Hospitals, Banks and Governmental Universities, they all fit within this scope. Arrangement is most definitely a challenging task. What is your suggestion for the arrangement of such a broad work?

Certainly, the measures of the National Library and Archives Organization are logical. Because they have the experience of document production and they actually want to produce documents. It was a good idea for this organization and its active team to be appointed for such a task. They are very experienced. However, the health of the methodology is a concern. In the field of oral history of executive agencies, we have to have a process approach, not a project approach. A project approach means that at the end of the year they announce the number of oral history books they have published. Essentially, they have proceeded with the aim of publishing and delivering books. Meanwhile the approach of the National Library and Archives Organization is procedural. That is, they intend to provide archives to answer the questions of future generations. This is the answer to the future history; whether it is subject or individual oriented.

* Now that you have mentioned person-orientation of the interviews, it should be noted that interviews are supposed to be conducted only at managerial level and with vice presidents and veterans of each organization. Do you think this is enough to record the oral history of an administrative system?

Certainly not enough. Originally, the founders of oral history in the World War I, interviewed soldiers because the commanders had recorded themselves in wireless conversations and had interviews with newspapers and were also referred to in the guidelines. Interviews with managers is good. But managers are not the main decision makers in an office. Our managers make a lot of decisions to make a good difference, but the work is done by the staff. Hence, the staff members shape the structure of an organization and define our administrative system. So they should be interviewed. The staff members write the history of the administration. Looking at an administrative system; 20 or more bosses come and go but the employees remain and witness the ups and downs.

* So you believe everyone is important in the records of oral history.

Yes. The interviewer must be well versed on the administrative records. Because the oral history project of the administrative agencies is subject-oriented, not person-oriented! So, mere interviews with managers is not enough. Because heads of departments are interesting characters. They want to present themselves. One of the damages in the oral history interviews of executive agencies is that they first want to interview the managers. While staff members at all levels should be interviewed. A procedural approach will more or less ensure the health of the interviewers.

* What do you think will affect the documentation of interviews in a project approach?

A project approach means that I have to interview thirty people and submit the interviews to the organization. But when the approach is procedural, the issues that affect the documentation of the interview will be considered. Whether it is asked in the open or closed form? Are people interviewed in a comfortable atmosphere? And ... affects the work. Most likely, the National Library and Archives also has a procedural approach. The organization's relationship with the interviewers should not be limited to workshops. Even a roundtable can be held to raise issues and questions, and train individuals involved in active interviews constantly. Perhaps this strategy will prevent major damage, such as being exposed to millions of interviews - which could yield no proper use.

* But interview with all the employees of an organization is very difficult and time-consuming.

It might be difficult, but we can use the cluster system. It is not necessary to interview all the staff. Interviews might be conducted with several employees, several workers and several managers. Our general critique of the oral history of Iran is its lack of organizational structure. That is, most of the oral history of Iran - what has already been achieved - is elitist.

* Maybe interview with managers is an effort to avoid repetition of the mistakes in the past.

This is a false impression. Because an interview with several managers makes the interview easier. You can interview 10 people and finish the project. The average interview number for a topic-oriented project is about 70. Why only interview 10 people? Why don’t we interview the clients? For example, when a movie is released, we are dealing with three groups: the first group constitutes of those who have acted in the movie. This group have recorded themselves. The second group, includes those who watch the movie, and the third group who are not interested in watching the movie. What should we do with the third group? Which group forms the majority? This is where the "corridor of history" makes sense.

* What does history corridor mean?

It means paying attention to people that we are unaware that their decisions change a system. This principle also applies to sociology: we must try to get the votes of those who did not vote. For example, there are people who have referred to the administrations and, for the same reason, they are aware of such issues as corruption. It is true that the scope of the work grows wider. But history has no ending. Who has put an end to history? Who is the last person in history? So you must interview continuously. History is a vivid and fluid phenomenon, and recording oral history should be done continuously. We have to consider a share for the clients in an organization. We do not say that you do not interview the executives, but why has oral history been born? For those who did not have the opportunity to record themselves. We should provide this opportunity in the administrative system to understand the oral history of an office.

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