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Mission & Methodology

Mission

The George J. Mitchell Oral History Project documents the life and career of Sen. Mitchell by recording, preserving, and providing access to interviews with individuals who have personal knowledge of the events and people associated with the Senator throughout his lifetime. Project recordings provide current and future generations of researchers with primary source materials that augment and complement both the George J. Mitchell Papers and the wider body of work in the field of oral history. The Project also provides a legislative compendium of Sen. Mitchell’s record in the U.S. Senate, annotated to provide explanations and context for particular legislative actions.

Methodology

The information we are seeking is best obtained by helping the interviewees to “tell their stories.” Oral histories should not be dry recitations of “facts,” but rather remembrances of the interviewee’s experiences and insights that elaborate on or interpret the “written record.” Recollections are frequently at odds with contemporaneous documents and both the passage of time and intervening events often reshape our memories—thus, recollections often have more value as clues than as absolute facts. As Alessandro Portelli, a leading Italian oral historian, was quoted as saying in a New York Times article (March 10, 2001), “Oral sources tell us not just what people did, but what they wanted to do, what they believed they were doing and what they now think they did.”

The importance of stimulating the interviewee to respond willingly to questions cannot be stressed enough. Questions should be framed to encourage, not dampen, the interviewee in his or her recollections. It is best to cast oneself as the student, eager to learn what the interviewee wishes to impart, not the investigative reporter, trying to pin down the facts. The latter approach almost certainly guarantees the equivalent of a lifeless butterfly collection. The former will reveal more than you anticipated and, often, more than the interviewee intended or realized was available in his or her memory.

Creating oral histories requires being meticulous about details. From researching, to interviewing, to editing transcripts, standardization, consistency, and accuracy are essential to producing high quality primary source materials. For researchers, the excitement and ultimate value of oral history lies in the opportunity to learn from women and men whose intriguing experiences and personal recollections will illuminate understanding of the period of history or subject in question. Oral history interviews that have been conducted thoughtfully and methodically enhance that research experience.