Some genealogists and historians have discredited the use of oral history, believing documents provide a more reliable picture of what really happened in the past.
Oral history as a source, however, is no less reliable than any document we might consult. All sources are prone to errors and discrepancies, even those carved in stone. If you’ve traced your ancestors in all censuses for their lifetimes, you know what I’m talking about: Census records have inconsistencies and errors from one enumeration to another.
Yes, one person’s version of an event will differ from another’s. My separate interviews of two brothers are a good example: When I asked the first brother if his mother was the emotional type, he responded, “Oh, yes. She cried over everything.” When I asked the same question of the second brother, he responded, “No, she didn’t cry very often.” I had to pause the interview to laugh because the versions were so different. It’s all about a person’s perception. The first brother perceived his mother as being emotional; to the other, she wasn’t. Maybe she let her guard down with one and not with the other. Or maybe the first brother found it so upsetting to see his mother cry that it made a bigger impact on him.
Your interview may produce slight discrepancies or glaring conflicts. So what do you do? Newscasters and journalists have to deal with this type of problem every day. For instance, three people can witness the same accident, and each one walks away with a different version of the story. Who’s right? They all are. Likewise, no amount of convincing will make Grandpa change his mind that Aunt Martha’s version is the correct one, so why bother? Do what reporters do: Give multiple versions of the same story (“According to Aunt Martha…” “On the other hand, Grandpa Miller gave his version of the story … “).Then select the one that most closely corroborates what your documented genealogical sources are telling you.