political commentary in the blank spaces between the line of books smuggled into his cell. While compiling these for publication years later, he indicated the continued need for secrecy about who helped get the books to him, and even their titles, fearing for the safety of those who aided him. His prison writings gave him focus and purpose, and kept at bay the daily humiliation of fear.3
If an intermediary records the account, he or she often influences the narrator by intervening or asking questions. The intermediary shapes the discussion, even unintentionally, simply by being present. There are many perspectives on a life that one would write down in private, but would not necessarily share with someone else.
For an oral history, the transcription of an interview can change its nature. A summation of the account would render a very different portrait than a verbatim transcript, complete with hesitations and false starts that can convey important perspectives on issues that may be difficult for the subject to discuss. These reflect how people actually speak, while a summation expresses only what the collector felt was important. In addition, language and colloquial phrases are important in conveying the subjects attitude toward issues or comfort level with various topics.
The Sample Analyses offer perspectives on personal accounts;
one is written by the subject and the other results from oral interviews
interpreted by a scholar. In each case, think carefully about the source.
Was the author trying to argue a case on her own behalf? Was the subject
a close friend of the interviewer? Is each person fluent in the language
used? Was the interview summarized or are the subjects words clearly
stated? The last point is an important one, because a summary becomes
an historical analysis rather than existing as a primary source.
3 Wole Soyinka, The Man Died: Prison Notes
of Wole Soyinka (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), p. 16