Oral History Techniques

Fran Buss has been developing her oral history techniques since 1975, when she met Jesusita Aragon, as elderly midwife living in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Buss knew someone should write Aragon’s story and tried to find someone to do it in Spanish. When that search was unsuccessful and Buss was about to move away, Aragon asked Buss to do it in English. At that time, Buss had read Theodore Rosengarten’s All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw (1974) and had acquired an old, reel-to-reel tape recorder. She just tried to think through the steps involved. She taped while Aragon cooked and did household chores and while waiting with Aragon for young women to give birth. She asked general questions and used listening techniques she had learned when heading a women’s crisis center. She and Aragon traveled to the places important to Aragon’s childhood and Buss photographed them. Buss also traced the personal histories of other midwives and the public health workers who supported their work.

Buss then transcribed Aragon’s tapes, put portions of the transcripts in chronological order, eliminated repetitive phrases, and typed out a narrative using Aragon’s words. The work resulted in La Partera: Story of a Midwife, University of Michigan Press, 1980. Buss had not had academic training at that time, and when Buss wrote an introduction, she did not have the historical insights she was to gain while working on her PhD in graduate school.

Buss continued using these techniques when interviewing seventy-two working-class women’s stories from around the country. She asked questions about how the women coped with their economic lives and how they found meaning in the difficult labor. Dignity: Lower Income Women Tell of Their Lives and Struggles, University of Michigan Press,1985, told the stories of ten of the women interviewed. Their particular stories represent different racial groups and life situations.

The next book she compiled and edited was Forged under the Sun/ Forjada bajo el sol: The Life of Maria Elena Lucas, University of Michigan Press, 1993. By that time she had entered the PhD program in history at the University of Arizona. Consequently, the whole time Maria Elena Lucas and Buss worked on it, Buss was systematically examining migrant, United Farm Workers, and Mexican American history. Because of her studies, Buss could ask historically deeper questions. She visited Lucas in South Texas multiple times and interviewed Lucas while eating, driving, hiking, searching for Lucas’ writings, and recording in more standard oral history settings. Between visits, Buss would listen to the tapes and write out long lists of follow-up questions. She also typed out1,500 pages of transcripts and examined Lucas’ extensive writings. When the book was completed she took the manuscript to Lucas and read much of it aloud. Lucas made editorial comments and Buss adapted them into the book.

Mary Robinson is the subject of Buss’ next work Moisture of the Earth: Mary Robinson, Civil Rights and Textile Union Activist, University of Michigan Press, 2009. Robinson and Buss worked on that book for twenty-three years. Robinson and Buss became close friends, taping under many circumstances, and searching together archives and locations of Robinson’s life. Again, Buss did much background work and between meetings typed out many follow-up questions. 1,500 pages of transcripts resulted with about fifty pages of index. When compiling the chronological narrative, Buss tried to reflect the emphasis given by Robinson. For example, the transcripts refer seventy-eight times to Robinson’s mother’s work as a sharecropper’s wife, so Buss gave that topic much emphasis. The real challenge was to put the twenty-three years of transcripts into a contemporary narrative. In the process, memory was distorted somewhat. For example, Robinson no longer remembers the details of her organizing career in the complexity she remembered during earlier interviews. But the many years of tapes make for a detailed, almost novel-like narrative.

Buss’ most recent oral history work has been a team effort with Josefina Castillo, PhD. They have interviewed, compiled, and edited a work called Spiritual Visions/ Border Lives: The Actions and Beliefs of Progressive Women Activists at the U.S.-Mexico Border. The book documents the oral histories of twelve women struggling to bring humane values to the lives of people caught in the political and economic turmoil that rages on the border. They followed a similar format to Buss’ earlier works and worked out general questions that they wanted to cover. Then they asked follow-up questions. Four of the interviews were in Spanish, then translated. Buss constructed the chronological narratives in a similar manner to earlier works.

The transcripts and indexes for all these tapes are or will be in the Schlesinger Library on the History on American Women with the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University. Transcripts for the first three books are also at six other research libraries.