The Canadian Oral History Reader (2015) “is an important work”

You can access a review of the book here.

The Canadian Oral History Reader ed. by Kristina R. Llewellyn, Alexander Freund, and Nolan Reilly (review)
Heather Read
From: The Canadian Historical Review
Volume 97, Issue 1, March 2016
pp. 145-147

The opening paragraphs of the review read:

[I have broken the longer text into shorter paragraphs, for ease of online reading.]

As the first compilation about oral history originating from, and discussing, the field in a Canadian context, The Canadian Oral History Reader is an important work. Editors Kristina Reilly, Alexander Freund, and Nolan Llewellyn note in the acknowledgements that the reader originated from a “desire to build an identifiable oral history community among scholars within Canada, and to have Canadian oral history scholarship gain greater recognition on the world stage” (ix).

This work, a clear labour of love, is a thorough and thoughtful volume and is indicative of the energetic level of oral history practice in Canada.

Reilly, Freund, and Llewellyn divide the book into four sections, preceded by a brief introduction and followed by a reflective postscript. The four main sections – Methodology, Interpretation, Preservation and Presentation, and Advocacy – provide thematic headings that connect a diverse group of essays. Contributions range from useful descriptions of legal and ethical issues to compelling case studies and research reports. Much of the writing throughout is a wonderful mixture of reflexive personal essay and thorough analytical research.

A striking element of the book is the space devoted to Aboriginal oral history. Brian Caillou’s nuanced exploration of academic, cultural, legal, and ethical issues is a valuable primer on the complexity of oral history, both in this particular cultural context and more generally. So too is his careful exposition of how to conduct an interview.

In Julie Cruikshank’s piece, “Oral History, Narrative Strategies, and Native American Historiography,” there are beautiful descriptions of the contemporary and historical context of her Yukon research, from Euro-American frontier mythologies to details of her work with Aboriginal elders, which illuminate worlds with which many Canadians are likely unfamiliar.

Finally, Winona Wheeler, discussing oral history research she conducted into land claims, demonstrates the advocacy that can be inherent in oral history work, with advice she received to “just take” Aboriginal stories back from colonizing historians of the past (293). I look forward to further editions of this volume (of which I hope there will be many) to see how the issues these authors discuss evolve over time.

Another strength of the collection is the quality of the writing. Joan Sangster’s dance between personal research perspectives and shifting political landscapes in “Reflections on the Politics and Praxis of Working-Class Oral Histories” is a strong example of reflexive oral history writing at its most accessible. Pamela Sugiman’s piece about Lois, a Japanese–Canadian woman who disagreed with Sugiman’s interpretations of the Japanese–Canadian internment experience, provides a well-written case study of the challenges of advocacy and oral history.

Oral history privileges an individual’s narration of their own history, but how do we, as researchers, handle those whose stories sit in opposition to those we would like to champion? According to Sugiman, we should do so with grace, patience, and a heart that is open to learning from another person’s perspective.

Alexander Freund’s multi-generational interview chapter is a welcome inclusion; oral history is often understood to be a single interviewer talking to a single narrator. At times, other interview situations may be desirable, but they can be challenging to conceive.

Freund’s detailed description of the event, along with his presentation of frameworks for understanding it, are useful. As he notes, “the three-generational family interview is a powerful tool in the oral historian’s toolbox” (176). Thanks to Freund, Canadian researchers now have an instruction manual for it.

The entire “Preservation and Presentation” section contains important issues for people conceptualizing a project. In just four essays, the editors cover archival issues, the process of working with oral histories (including pre- and post-production as well as the interview itself), the act of using oral testimony in classrooms and museums, and the importance of developing a pedagogy of listening in educational systems.

The range of issues presented is wonderful, particularly since many oral history projects, both personal and large scale, are often conceived solely as documentary efforts, with little thought given to what can and should happen with the stories once collected. This section provides useful maps for what is possible.

[End of excerpt]

Blurb for The Canadian Oral History Reader ed. by Kristina R. Llewellyn, Alexander Freund, and Nolan Reilly (2015)

The following blurb for the book is from the Toronto Public Library website; I have broken the longer text into shorter paragraphs and have added a link:

Despite a long and rich tradition of oral history research, few are aware of the innovative and groundbreaking work of oral historians in Canada. For this first primer on the practices within the discipline, the editors of The Canadian Oral History Reader have gathered some of the best contributions from a diverse field.

Essays survey and explore fundamental and often thorny aspects in oral history methodology, interpretation, preservation and presentation, and advocacy. In plain language, they explain how to conduct research with indigenous communities, navigate difficult relationships with informants, and negotiate issues of copyright, slander, and libel.

The authors ask how people’s memories and stories can be used as historical evidence – and whether it is ethical to use them at all. Their detailed and compelling case studies draw readers into the thrills and predicaments of recording people’s most intimate experiences, and refashioning them in transcripts and academic analyses.

They also consider how to best present and preserve this invaluable archive of Canadian memories. The Canadian Oral History Reader provides a rich resource for community and university researchers, undergraduate and graduate students, and independent scholars and documentarians, and serves as a springboard and reference point for global discussions about Canadian contributions to the international practice of oral history.

Contributors include Brian Calliou (independent scholar),

Elise Chenier (Simon Fraser University),

Julie Cruikshank (University of British Columbia), Alexander Freund (University of Winnipeg),

Steven High (Concordia University),

Nancy Janovicek (University of Calgary),

Jill Jarvis-Tonus (independent scholar),

Kristina R. Llewellyn (Renison University College, University of Waterloo),

Bronwen Low (McGill University),

Claudia Malacrida (University of Lethbridge),

Joy Parr (Western University),

Joan Sangster (Trent University),

Emmanuelle Sonntag (Université du Québec à Montréal),

Pamela Sugiman (Ryerson University),

Winona Wheeler (University of Saskatchewan), and

Stacey Zembrzycki (Concordia University).

[End of text]


I am absolutely delighted that I cam across this book through a tweet from History Education, @thenhier, which is a “Website linking historians, educators and public history professionals in the improvement of history education in Canada | Ce compte publie aussi en français.”

Previous posts (among many others) dealing history include:

Re-thinking the role of the regional oral history organization (July 25, 2014 Oxford University Press blog post)

Canadians and Their Pasts (2013). Digital Film-making (2014)

Oral History and Digital Storytelling Centre at Concordia University helps people get their stories together 


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