Most human affairs happen without leaving vestiges or records of any kind behind them. The past, having happened, has perished with only occasional traces. To begin with, although the absolute number of historical writings is staggering, only a small part of what happened in the past was ever observed. And only a part of what was observed in the past was remembered by those who observed it; only a part of what was remembered was recorded; only a part of what was recorded has survived; only a part of what survived has come to the historians’ attention; only a part of what has come to their attention is credible; only a part of what is credible has been grasped; and only a part of what has been grasped can be expounded or narrated by the historian.
- Louis Gottschalk, Understanding History (1969)
Following the UFO History Workshop and the subsequent formation of the Sign Historical Group in 1999, it became evident that one area lacking in the preservation of the history of the UFO phenomenon was the archiving of spoken memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews. Many individuals who have personal knowledge of some aspect of UFO history, whether witnesses, Air Force project officials and personnel, scientists involved in government-funded research, investigators and individuals involved in the social aspects of the phenomenon have never been interviewed concerning information and perspectives that only they can provide. Consequently, we established the Sign Oral History Project in order to preserve important historical information and ultimately make it available for scholarly study.
The progress of the project has been excellent. With the assistance of many colleagues the present collection has grown to exceed 100 interviews. The Sign Oral History Project welcomes donations of audio, video and transcripts of interviews concerning UFOs and related topics.
Oral History as Source Material
Regarding the standards and practice of producing oral history, the maxim which speaks directly to evidentiary value is that oral history must be based firmly on research. Many critical essays have been written addressing the fear that the ease of tape recording will mean, "a downgrading both of source material and what is made from it" for future scholars. Some have charged that oral history gathers trash and trivia with all the discrimination of a vacuum cleaner. Of course, one might well respond that one researchers trash is another's gold, but the critique is not without substance since standards have been slow in developing.
Oral history is in many ways similar to oral tradition (unwritten knowledge passed on through successive generations) since it can introduce error or falsification and requires comparative evaluation for veracity. Since the human memory is a selective record, then recollections (not concurrent to the subject or event) are still further selective and the evidentiary value begins to decrease towards abstraction. However, relevant to SOHP subject matter, some researchers find oral evidence reliable for the unique event, which leaves a powerful and sometimes life-altering impression on the interviewee.
The oral history memoir that emerges as a result of the mutually creative process is a new historical document. The fact that the document is mutually created contributes to both the strength and weakness inherent in oral history memoirs. Nevertheless, with caveat emptor in mind, the problems of evaluating spoken testimony are not so different from those inherent in the use of other primary sources. To be most effective oral history must be well grounded in sound analysis, including a thorough knowledge and understanding of all available and pertinent sources if it is to produce the best and most reliable historical documentation.
Principles and Standards
The Sign Oral History Project supports the Principles and Standards of the Oral History Association in promoting oral history as a method of gathering and preserving historical information through recorded interviews with participants in past events and ways of life.
Oral history interviews are conducted for a variety of purposes: to create archival records; for individual research; for community and institutional projects; and for publications and media productions. Regardless of the purpose of the interviews, oral history should be conducted in the spirit of critical inquiry and social responsibility, and with recognition of the interactive and subjective nature of the enterprise.
SOHP interviews are video taped and in due course transcribed. Copies and transcripts of interviews are deposited with the primary organizations, and eventually other oral history depositories.
The Sign Oral History Project
2545 Pillsbury Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN. 55404