The Value of Oral History Interviews

image of man receiving certificate

A senior missionary couple assigned to research the history of the LDS Church in Italy recently benefitted from information found in an oral history.

In reviewing an hour-long 2015 interview and other materials, Elder Lorenzo and Sister Virginia Semadeni discovered the many missionary experiences of the John A. and Vicki Grinceri family, pioneers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Italy.

As a young man, John Grinceri served a mission in Italy and was present when future LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson rededicated the country for the preaching of the gospel in 1966. Young Elder Grinceri was once arrested for disturbing the peace before baptizing one of the policemen. At age 29, Grinceri was called back to Italy to be a mission president. After John married Vicki, five of the couple's six sons later served missions in Italy. John Grinceri went on to serve as an Area Authority Seventy, temple president and patriarch.

'They are a remarkable family,' Elder Semadeni said. 'It's been a wonderful experience. It's exciting.'

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines 'oral history' as the collection and study of historical information using sound recordings of interviews with people having personal knowledge or past events.

Oral histories are one tool the Church History Department uses to capture and preserve information, gain first-hand insight into historical events, and record the faith-promoting experiences and testimonies of members that would otherwise be lost. Also, when traditional records are inadequate, oral histories are a good way to fill in the gaps, said Matthew K. Heiss, an area manager of Global Support and Acquisitions in the Church History Department.

'It's to capture, in the spirit, the history that has not gone recorded,' Heiss said. 'It's not just a testimony, it's a testimony within the context of history. ... Who better to tell the story of Mormon history than the people who are living it?'

Elizabeth Heath, an acquisitions manager, said Latter-day Saint oral histories are like 'a history with an eternal perspective.'

'That's what it feels like,' Heath said. 'People can go back and say 'I've seen the hand of the Lord since I was young.''

Recording oral histories are part of a scriptural mandate found in Doctrine and Covenants 21:1. In 2007, President Henry B. Eyring, First Counselor in the First Presidency, gave a talk titled 'O Remember, Remember,' that has almost served like a 'constitution' for the work of gathering oral histories, Heiss said.

The LDS Church first considered the use of oral histories as a church history tool in 1972, at the suggestion of Davis Bitton, then the assistant church historian. Bitton invited Gary Shumway, a Mormon college history professor with an oral history background, to Utah to give a series of training seminars. Shumway also recorded some of the first interviews with then apostle Spencer W. Kimball and general authorities A. Theodore Tuttle and Delbert L. Stapley, according to research by Heiss.

Over the following years, staff members have traveled the globe collecting oral histories, but were limited by language, cultural and gender barriers. Once transcribed, those early oral histories were bound and filed away in the Church History archives.

Oral histories have been especially beneficial in parts of the world where illiteracy is prevalent or written records have not been preserved. During the Cold War period in East Germany, the secret police read personal letters and confiscated journals. In pre-Mikhail Gorbachev times, people weren't inclined to keep records, Heiss said.

'Some cultures discouraged people from keeping personal records,' Heiss said. 'Oral history allows us to capture and create records that would not be created otherwise.'

By 2008, the church had collected about 4,000 oral histories from around the world, said Heiss, a 30-year veteran who has conducted many interviews in many countries.

In 2009, the strategy changed. It was decided that church members in their respective countries would be trained to do interviews in their respective languages so nothing is missed.

'We now have Peruvians interviewing people in Peru, Brazilians in Brazil, Russians in Russia,' Heiss said. 'The language barrier diminishes, the context is correct and understood. It's not an outsider looking in, it’s an insider with all that experience, better more pointed questions, better information.'

Under the direction of the Church History Department, Global Support and Acquisition has three teams of staff members that work worldwide with area and regional church history advisors and specialists, along with church service and full-time missionaries, to gather oral histories, acquire records and improve annual history submissions, Heiss said.

'We have church service and full-time missionaries who do these international acquisition special projects. The work they do is superb and much appreciated,' Heath said.

The church has close to 11,000 oral histories today. Fewer oral histories are transcribed and bound because the Church History Department doesn't have the capacity, but audio files are indexed. The histories remain in the native language and can be translated if needed, Heiss said.

Sometimes the oral histories are a gateway 'to a treasure trove of other records' that people wouldn't even consider to be historical documents,' Heath said.

The church also makes an effort to ensure each oral history is conducted with the academic rigors of a historian, and that it's not just 'a cool story,' Heiss said.

'It's built on an academic practice,' Heiss said. 'I would hope that our oral histories would stand up to anything a university or historical society would collect.'

Most importantly for the church, collecting oral histories certifies the preservation of culturally authentic and unique voices, as well as spiritual accounts.

'One of the more powerful aspects of oral histories is capturing a spirit and the emotion of somebody as they recount their conversion experience, what it was like to meet the prophet, or whatever it happens to be, that often is not in a written (daily) record,' Heiss said. 'We have a prayer before starting to invoke the Spirit, to invoke memory. We want authentic experiences, not fish stories. More often than not, the Spirit will pour into the room and you know that you are capturing something that is going beyond just a friendly conversation. You can feel it.'

Church members throughout Latin America have inspired Matthew G. Geilman, the area manager for that part of the world.

'As I have done interviews throughout Latin America I have been personally touched by the opportunity to step into the lives and hearts of faithful Latter-day Saints, seeing their dedication, experiences, and even challenges they have had to face and overcome,' Geilman said. 'As I have interviewed people in many countries, their stories of faith and discipleship are independent witnesses to the truthfulness of the gospel. Though they live in different nations, and have never met each other, their experiences and conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ are largely the same, which is a great witness to the fruit that gospel brings into our lives, no matter where we live in the world.'

Those interested in more information about oral histories, donating historic records, or serving a Church History mission can contact the Church History Department:

image of elderly sister being interviewed orally