This paper was presented at the 25th annual Oral History Association meeting, Cambridge, MA, November 9, 1990.
All footnotes have been converted to endnotes. © 1991 Dennis R. Papazian.


by Dennis R. Papazian

Dr. Dennis R. Papazian is a professor of Russian history and the founder/director of the Armenian Research Center at The University of Michigan, Dearborn. Dr. Papazian was the project director of the oral history project of the Armenian Assembly of America. He currently serves also as the president of the Society for Armenian Studies.

In a sense oral history dates as far back as Herodotus and his "researches." For Herodotus, as he wandered about his world, not only wrote down what he observed but also what he was told by eyewitnesses, pseudo-eyewitnesses, and those who purported to have some knowledge of distant things and places as well as of past events.

Oral history in the broader sense also encompasses the oral tradition which was maintained by various means in pre-literate societies, particularly by elders, shamans, bards, minstrels, poets, and troubadours. These traditions in many cases were eventually written down, such as the Iliad and Odyssey of antiquity or the more modern case of the Koran, and have thereby become part of our written tradition.

But what we mean by oral history today generally requires not the mere writing down of verbal traditions or individual accounts, but rather the preservation by various sound and picture recording technologies of the testimony of a single individual, or individuals comprising a group, regarding the same issues or general topic. The technologies of oral recording at present include audio tapes, generally analogue, and visual tapes, generally recorded in various formats by television cameras, or indeed on movie film. The presumption is that these recordings are authenticated testimony, being the actual words, inflections, and gestures of those interviewed, and dependable evidence of an individual's testimony or deposition.

If we are concerned chiefly by the legal implications of the process, then we do have a problem in the fact that these tapes (with the exception of motion pictures), recorded by contemporary technology, can also be altered by unscrupulous persons by means also provided by contemporary technology. This problem will become especially acute as oral historians adopt binary recording technologies, to replace analog technologies. Binary technologies, as is now generally known, provide for the complete and absolute manipulation of sounds and pictures, which drove their development in the first place, and present the oral historian with problems of authentication not heretofore confronted if they are used. The use of WORM (write once, read many times) optical disk recordings, would minimize, although it does not obliterate, this particular problem.

As an aside, I might say, oral historians concerned with the authentication of their product might avoid binary technologies until, and if, techniques and tools are developed to prevent undetectable manipulation.

The question of authentication is moot, of course, as long as the interviewee is alive and can testify to the accuracy of the interview. This fact makes transcriptions and the verification of transcriptions a more than useful technique for authentication. The purpose of oral history, however, frequently is to record the memories of those who will soon no longer be with us, to preserve, as it were, a legacy for posterity; as well as to provide a resource for future investigators, writers, and historians. The transcription of such interviews, accordingly, provide a burden of time and cost which in effect negates the oral history tradition. Transcription of verbal testimony has for years, before the invention of modern oral history technologies, been a standard procedure of investigators; but the new technology allows for the preservation of information in the recorded form for further use without the necessity of transcription.

Authentication of oral history tapes is a dimension which poses a new burden over and above all the standard problems inherent in the process. Authentication, at a minimum, requires that those engaged in the recording of oral histories take care to keep tightly written records of the process in order to guarantee the pedigree of their product. This system would certainly include signed release statements of those interviewed, giving the name of the interviewee, the names of the interviewers, date and place of the interview, a physical descriptions of media used, signed statements by any witnesses present, and evidence of careful storage and protection of the original tapes. It would also be important to certify the depository, to keep a record or log of those who have access to the materials, whether or not the materials were circulated, and in general protecting against access by non-responsible, or untrustworthy, persons.

In the Armenian Assembly project, which I headed and to which I will refer later, we made sure that all the relevant materials were recorded right on the tape during the interview. An actual example is the following:

"This is Helen Sahagian interviewing Mrs. Arshalous Najarian, born in Bursa circa 1904, interviewed at her home at 47 Wendell Avenue, Cambridge, Massachusetts, on July 7, 1980." In this case, a transcribed interview, the transcriber is also listed, the number of tapes, and the tape number (the tapes were numbered serially from the first to the last, thus making missing tapes immediately noticeable).

Ideally, the oral histories would be transcribed to hard copy and authenticated by the interviewee, as we did in a number of cases. This system, however, limits by cost and time the amount of material that can be collected and in a sense defeats certain advantages of oral histories, that is the presentation of testimony by sound and the ability to accumulate large archives of "oral" material in inexpensive form.

In the binary age, even the preservation of "hard copy" presents its own problems. With modern scanners, computers, and xerographic duplicating technology, even "hard copy" can easily be manipulated. Those interested in authenticating preserved materials, written or oral, are thus confronted with almost insuperable problems. Here, again, the pedigree of the document becomes of the utmost importance and careful steps must be taken to ensure their authenticity.

Let me turn for a moment to the whole question of authentic knowledge of the past. We know from research, for example, that even ancient manuscripts, when they can be authenticated as original or verifiable copies, present us with the problem of the veracity of the sources. To take a simple example, we have the story in the Russian Primary Chronicle (The Tale of Bygone Years), a document which has for all practical purposed been authenticated, about the so-called "call" of Rurik. According to the chronicler, the "call" was made in the following way:

They accordingly went overseas to the Varangian Russes: these particular Varangians were known as Russes, just as some are called Swedes, and others Normans, Angles, and Goths, for they were thus named. The Chuds, the Slavs and the Krivichians then said to the people of Rus, "Our whole land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come to rule and reign over us!"

Thus while the document is authenticated, there is a question of the veracity of the report. Did the Slavs literally invited the Scandinavians to come and rule them or not? I do not intend to answer that question here, but rather present it as one of literally thousands of problems that we have in dealing with the content of written histories. Is the story correct because it is contained in a verifiable document? The general feeling among Russian scholars, of course, is that since the chronicler was under the protection of the Rurikeds he undoubtedly put the best light on the origin of the dynasty he served. Such internal and external criticism is necessary when dealing with primary documents and chronicles.

The authentication of chronicles has been traditionally to verify the material by other chronicles, written materials, or in some cases through archeology. It is in this way -- cross verification -- that historical truth, or what we take to be historical truth, has been determined. The same can be said of large bodies of oral history materials. If the testimony of the interviewee can be authenticated by the testimony of other interviewees and by other dependable sources, then we can feel comfortable that the material is authentic. Material that can be verified from a number of disparate sources can certainly be presumed to be authentic, particularly if it has a known and dependable pedigree.

Oral history has a particular importance today inasmuch as the conventional written records, the sources of so-called "primary materials" traditionally exploited by historians, have in recent times become less dependable and effective as a source of accurate information. At the beginning of the 19th century, for example, when an ambassador was sent overseas to represent his country, he was given a set of "instructions" to follow in dealing with the foreign country. These instructions were periodically updated by couriers from the home country and undoubtedly influenced by the secret information sent home by the ambassador.

The instructions were inevitably frank and usually secret. Their effectiveness depended on their being a true and coherent expression of the policy of the government which sent the ambassador in order to direct the conduct of its agent. If the instructions were faulty, the work of the agent was injured; so extreme care was usually warranted to make them accurate and expressive. Any change in instructions, accordingly, needed to have the same qualities of frankness, coherence, and confidentially. Historians, consequently, felt confident that if they were able to gain access to governmental archives, they could discover the truth about past policies and events. Archival research, as is well known, served us well up to the beginnings of World War II.

The advent of modern technologies of communication -- the telegraph, the radio, and the telephone -- and of transportation -- the train, the automobile, and the aeroplane -- changed the necessity, or at least the technique, of frank and cogent interchange between countries and their agents. One has only to observe the American Secretary of State making his numerous travels abroad to understand that the traditional mode of communication have fallen by the wayside. In today's world, makers of policy are often the executors of policy; and the record of the development of policy, or its very enunciation, may not be contained in the written record, or at least not in conventional records.

Furthermore, the use of the telephone -- either open or encoded -- has exacerbated the problem of documentation. So much important governmental and other business today is transacted over the telephone, that some of the most important business of the day lacks a "paper trail." We need but look to the case of President Richard M. Nixon and the "Watergate tapes" to drive home this point. Were it not for the fact that White House conversations and phone calls were audio taped, there would have been no chance of successfully prosecuting the Watergate "plumbers" or of pressuring President Nixon to resign. There were no incriminating documents, only incriminating tapes.

The case of the Watergate tapes is also instructive of how analogue audio tapes can be altered, and such altered tapes detected, by the then current technology. The example of Rosemary Woods and the "twelve minute gap" should suffice to illustrate this point.

We also have the Iran-Contra exposé to illustrate the illusory quality of computer stored information. Those in the "White House basement" who sought to obliterate information about the issue which they had stored on electronically recorded magnetic media (hard drives or floppy disks) in computers found it easy to erase the files and make them unrecoverable. While simply erased computer files can be recovered, there are methods of erasing them permanently by reformatting the storage medium or using programs which "wipe out" files. Overwriting "wiped out" files or reformatted disks is currently a sure method to prevent recovery of files.

Furthermore, we know that hard copy files were destroyed by shredding. While some of the shredded documents may have been recovered and reconstituted, it is highly probable that most of the destruction went undetected. Here again, most of what we know about the Iran-Contra controversy does not come from the documentation but rather from testimony before Congress and the investigations of the special prosecutor. What could not be found in the records, accordingly, was derived from oral testimony under "the rule of evidence."

Because of this change in the conduct of business, government, and foreign policy, society has come to depend more and more on sources other than archival documentation. To know what "really" happened, we have come to depend more and more on personal notes, diaries, and memoirs -- both published and unpublished -- of the chief actors. Indeed, this necessity to quiz the individuals involved, either directly or indirectly, has led to the popularity -- indeed the necessity -- of oral histories.

Materials produced by the actors, we can readily surmise, contain broad possibilities for being orchestrated by unscrupulous, self-serving individuals. What is needed is a way of testing such information. Here again, as with the chronicles, the material needs to be verified by comparison with other sources: we can presume that if the facts expressed are supported by other dependable sources, then they are fundamentally correct.

My own experience has been as the project director of an Armenian genocide oral history project carried out under a NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) grant through the Armenian Assembly of America made while I was the director of the Washington offices. The grant proposal was developed by Vigen Der Manuelian who generously assigned it to the Armenian Assembly for revision and submission as a matching funds request. Several Armenian oral history projects had been developed and carried out before this, including some work done by students at UCLA, ALMA (the Armenian Library and Museum of America), the Armenian Film Foundation, and Dr. Vazken Parsegian, of the Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute. More recently, the Zoryan Institute, and perhaps others, have been engaged in oral history recording.

The immediate impetus for the Armenian oral history projects, as I understood them, was an explicit concern that the survivors of the Armenian genocide of 1915/16 were growing old and would soon be dying. If no action were taken to record their memories, then vital evidence of their experiences would be lost for ever. At that time most of us involved were also concerned that we preserve as much information as we could of the way of life of the Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire, especially of those who had lived in the ancestral homelands. It is only now, on reflection, that I have come to believe that many of us were impelled by an unconscious concern that Armenian history, our personal as well as community history, had been torn asunder by the genocide and that when the older generation died we would be confronted with a second and final break with ties to the homeland and memories of the past.

It has been said that every person and every nation has a right to its history. Armenians had suffered a rupture in their history due to the genocide and now the younger generation was confronted with another, final, rupture to follow the demise of those elders who represented continuity with the past.

Fortunately, and unexpectedly, many of the survivors were impelled to write their memoirs, and dozens of the them have been published in the past few years. These memoirs provide a wealth of resource material chronicling the suffering of the survivors and their road to deliverance. They also provide a tie between a past world and the present, a critical link in the life of a people between the homeland and the diaspora.

There was a sense of urgency which accompanied our oral history work. We had to record as many survivors as possible before they died and their memory of things past be lost for ever. We also vaguely felt that the oral histories, and the transcriptions, would serve as a kind of deposition which, if not presented to a court of law, at least would be presented to a court of international justice. Accordingly, we were as careful as we could be in record keeping and tape preservation.

One set of tapes of the more than 400 interview is kept in the offices of the Armenian Assembly in Washington, one copy was made and deposited in the ALMA in Watertown, MA, and one final set was made and deposited in my personal library and archive. Approximately 100 of the interviews, chosen on a select basis, have been transcribed and verified. The originals are in my archives.

I will not in this paper deal with the mechanics of our process beyond saying that we made use of the tested questionnaires and other materials developed by the ALMA, by Vigen Der Manuelian and Bethel Charkoudian, in conjunction with professional advice from experienced practitioners in oral history. The work represented the state of the art at the time the project was carried out.

Interviews were made all over the United States and Canada and an attempt was made to chose persons with vivid memories and those who represented a cross section of towns, cities and villages where Armenians lived and from which they were deported. This was an important factor since the present Turkish government denies the Armenian genocide and then argues that Armenians were deported only from the Russian front where it was feared they would fraternize with the enemy. Those who have seriously studied the Armenian genocide know that the expulsions took place all over Turkey, from the north, south, east, west, and from the central area. In the example interview cited above, for instance, the interviewee was from Brousa, a town only a few miles from Istanbul.

Depositions, in the Armenian Assembly project, were taken from survivors from Aiden, Brousa, Izmit, Kastamouni, Ankara, Konia, Adana, Marash, Sevas, Trebizond, Shabin Kara Hissar, Mamouret-el-Aziz/Harpout, Aleppo, Ourfa, Diyarbekir, Sassoun, Erzeroum, Van, Istanbul, and the environs and villages of all these cities, as well as from survivors from north Persia and the Russian Empire. On the face of it, on the basis of all the evidence, there is no question that the Armenian genocide occurred all over Turkey.

Many of the survivors, although certainly not all of them, were children or villagers with little or no education at the time of the genocide. The cited interview was made in 1980 of a woman born ca. 1904. The woman would have been approximately eleven years old at the time of the genocide. Most of the survivors received no further education in the United States, and generally occupied their time with the struggle to survive while working and raising children. There is little chance their memories were modified by later study, and so their testimony is untainted by any after-the-fact information regarding their personal experience.

As a matter of fact, what we find is a very personal view of the events from the bottom up, so to speak. Few of the interviewees had any impression of international politics or of Turkish government policy at the center. Their experience, with a few notable exceptions, was with local officials, the police, the Chetes (criminal irregulars), and roughnecks pressed into constabulary service, and not with statesmen, power brokers, politicians, high officials, or ambassadors.

Another internal indicator of the authenticity of the testimony is the emotional catharsis which accompanied many of the interviews. Many interviewees broke down and cried. Some said that they could now die in peace, their story now having been recorded. Others cried and described incidents which they had kept secret and never verbalized to anyone before. In a few cases, woman told of being taken in by wealthy Turks or Kurds, of having children, and of then escaping with the coming of the Allies. "My child is still in Turkey," one lamented, "what has become of my beautiful child? Where is he, and what is he doing? Does he remember his poor mother, his young teenage mother?" It is highly unlikely that such testimony given under great emotional strain could be affected or contrived.

Another internal indicator of the authenticity of the testimony is the fact that almost inevitably the interviewees expressed an inordinate hatred for all Turks and then would go on to tell how their escape was arranged by a Turkish family which hid and succored them and then helped them to flee. This expression of hatred for all Turks and then the remembrance of the good Turk who helped them to escape is an inconsistency of judgment which would not be present in contrived testimony, but would rather reflect the true emotional state of the interviewees and the hierarchal quality of their memory.

Another indicator is the fact that almost all of the interviewees saw their experience not only in the past in time but seemingly also in space. "Armenia", meaning that portion of the traditional homeland which had been in the Ottoman Empire, was not a contemporary place but somewhere back in time. "I don't want to go back there, I like it here with all the modern conveniences. What's back there for me? Life was not easy like here?" Little thought was given to the fact that America back in 1915 was hardly the place it was in 1980; yet for the interviewees, to go back to Armenia was to go back to 1915. The testimony, for the most part, then was not motivated by current politics or a desire to demand lands back from the Turks. Various demands may be on the agenda of some second and third generation Armenians, but it was hardly on the minds of the interviewed survivors themselves.

Finally, the past seemed to be idealized by the interviewees. The land was richer in the old country, the fruit bigger and more tasty, the friendships closer, the people more moral, life easier, and even the old Turkish neighbors friendly. The psychological mechanism, as we all know, is one of assertion of the values of the interviewee by his looking at the past as what it should have been rather than as it nakedly was. Furthermore, they are following their natural inclination to idealize their youth as well as reflecting the reality that children rarely see or understand the problems faced by the adult community. It is clear that survivors would hardly have idealized their past in Turkey if they were falsifying their testimony.

So what kind of evidence they do these oral histories provide? They provide the kind of evidence typical of oral histories, the personal experience and the personal point of view. Numerous books and studies have been made regarding memory, particularly the memory of past events. The limitations of long-term memory are well recognized, yet it is also understood that trauma, or traumatic events tend to be burnt into the memory or repressed altogether. So while we should be well aware of the parameters of memory characteristics, we can safely say that those basic events and fundamental feelings reported can be trusted, although not in all detail, and that the interpretation of events reflects not only objective reality but also in part the personality and psyche of the interviewee. In these stories we get a variety of detail, but in all essentials the details reflect the image found in other interviews of the same time and place; and the overall picture which emerges is one that reflects the larger story which has already been well established by contemporary adult eyewitnesses and observers who earlier reported on those same general events.

One of the major collections of contemporary eyewitness reports, the collection made by Arnold Toynbee, is often not given the weight it deserves. This work is attributed to Lord Bryce, an eminent historian in his own right, and destined for Viscount Grey of Fallodon, the then foreign minister of the British Empire,(1) is divided into sections, eg., general descriptions, and then the vilayets of Van, Bitlis, Azerbaijan and Hakkiari, the Caucasus, Erzeroum, Mamouret-ul-Aziz, Trebizond, the Sandjak of Shabin Kara-Hissar, Sivas, Kaisaria, Angora, Thrace, Constantinople, Brousa and Ismid, the Anatolian railway, Cilicia (Adana and Marash), Mussa Dagh, Ourfa, Aleppo, and Der-el-Zor. These contemporary reports in this book confirm in all major detail the stories recorded on the oral history tapes.

Furthermore, there are thousands of official documents of all the European powers, including evidence of eyewitnesses and government officials, that can be found in government archives, as well as published and unpublished, books, articles, and letters.(2)

Visual oral histories have been put to good use thus far by Dr. J. Michael Hagopian of the Armenian Film Foundation in a series of films which have been widely distributed amid high acclaim. I know of no other use that has currently been made of Armenian oral history tapes. What needs to be done, of course, is to make use of excerpts from the tapes in books and articles currently being written about the Armenian genocide. Marjorie Housepian Dobkin, for example, used tapes of Americans who had been in the harbor of Smyrna during the burning of the city when she wrote her book.(3)

Furthermore, it would be important to publish extensive works based on the oral histories themselves. Such systematic use of the tapes is long overdue and sorely needed.

As far as legal action is concerned, there is little question that the tapes, if properly verified, could be a part of a general indictment for legal action. Such legal action, which would be time consuming and expensive, may indeed be the next step. In any case, any tool for the discovery of historical truth has political implications if the issue is that of an unresolved crime, such as the Armenian genocide.

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Allen, Barbara, From memory to history: using oral sources in local historical research, Nashville, Tenn.: American Association for State and Local History, c1981.

Baum, Willa K., Oral history for the local historical society, Nashville, Tenn.: American Association for State and Local History, 1975.

Transcribing and editing oral history, Nashville, Tenn.: American Association for State and Local History, c1977.

Dexter, Lewis Anthony, Elite and specialized interviewing, Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1970.

Hoopes, James, Oral history: an introduction for students, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, c 1979.

Montell, William Lynwood, The saga of Coe Ridge: a study in oral history, Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1970.

Olch, Peter D., Selections from the fifth and sixth National Colloquia on Oral History, New York: Oral History Association, 1972.

Shumway, Gary L., An oral history primer, Salt Lake City: G. L. Shumway, c1973.

Sitton, Thad., Oral history: a guide for teachers and others, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983.

Thompson, Paul Richard, The voice of the past: oral history, Oxford, [Eng.] New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.


Ambassador Morgenthau's Story, by Henry Morgenthau, New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1918.

Armenia: Survival of a Nation, by Christopher Walker, New York: St. Martin's Press, 2nd edition, 1990.

Facing History and Ourselves; Holocaust and Human Behavior, by Margot Stern and William Parsons, Watertown: International Educations, 1982.

Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century, by Leo Kuper, New York: Penguin Paperbacks, 1981.

Hitler and the Armenian Genocide, by Kevork Bardakjian, Cambridge: Zorian Institute, 1985.

Neither to Laugh Nor to Weep: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, by Abraham Hartunian, Cambridge: Armenian Heritage Press, 2nd edition, 1986.

Passage to Ararat, by Michael Arlen, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.

Smyrna 1922: Destruction of a City, by Marjorie Housepian Dobkin, New York: Kent State University Press, 1988.

The Armenian Genocide and America's Outcry: A Compilation of U.S. Documents, 1890-1923, Armenian Assembly of America, Washington, DC, 1985.

The Armenian Genocide in Perspective, Richard G. Hovannisian, editor, New Brunswick: Transaction Books, Rutgers University, 1986.

The Armenian Genocide - News Accounts from the American Press: 1915-1922, by Richard D. Kloian, Berkeley: Anto Printing, 1985.

The Armenian Holocaust: A Bibliography Relating to the Deportations, Massacres, and Dispersion of the Armenian People, 1915-1923, by Richard G. Hovannisian, Cambridge: Armenian Heritage Press, 2nd revised printing, 1980.

The Blight of Asia, by George Horton, Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1926.

"The Genocide of the Armenian People," Armenian Review (A Special Issue), Spring, 1984, Volume 37, No. 1, Boston: Armenian Review, Inc.

The Lions of Marash: Personal Experiences with American Near East Relief, by Stanley Kerr, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1973.

"The Role of Turkish Physicians in the World War One Genocide of the Ottoman Armenians," by Vahakn Dadrian, reprinted from Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Volume I, No. 2, New York: Pergamon Press, 1986.

The Slaughterhouse Province: An American Diplomat's Report on the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1917, by Leslie A. Davis, New York: Aristide D. Caratzas, 1989.

The Treatment of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, 1915-1916, by Viscount Bryce, London: His Majesty's Publishers, 1916.



1. The Treatment of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, 1915-1916, by Viscount Bryce, London: His Majesty's Publishers, 1916.

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2. Richard G. Hovannisian, ed., The Armenian Holocaust: A Bibliography Relating to the Deportations, Massacres, and Dispersion of the Armenian People, 1915-1923, Cambridge: Armenian Heritage Press, 2nd revised printing, 1980.

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3. Marjorie Housepian Dobkin, Smyrna 1922: Destruction of a City, New York: Kent State University Press, 1988.

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Return to Selected writings