In 1926 Kaarle Krohn proposed at the annual meeting of the Finnish Literature Society that it might be a good idea to ask people to recall real events, above all stages and personal experiences in their own lives, in addition to folk tales, sayings and legends. “Even a life seemingly devoid of outward distinction may be endowed with spiritual values, and these should, if possible, be given expression by the persons described themselves”, he said. By the closing decades of the 19th century a band of amateur collectors, local observers, was already forming as a major aid to the nascent discipline now known as folkloristics. This prompted the oft-quoted notion of “the nation side by side with the scholars”. Decades were, however, to pass before any move was made to take up the idea cast out by Krohn, for scholars continued to be interested primarily in crystallised folklore and genres rather than the lives of the people who narrated them.
The Archives mission began to expand considerably from the 1960s onwards, when rapid steps forward were taken in both the basic premises of the discipline and the technology and archiving systems. Study of popular and contemporary culture assumed its place alongside the long-established study of folklore, and urban life began to be addressed in the same way as agrarian culture. Tape recorders grew lighter and tapes cheaper, with the result that systematic sound recording increased and more discourse of a life-story nature was deposited in the Archives. The emphasis in the written word likewise shifted from crystallised to non-crystallised oral history. The national collecting campaigns and competitions for written material were soon among the Archives most conspicuous lines of activity, and the prize-winning narrators caught the attention of both the media and researchers. Reminiscences of Karelian evacuees were collected in 1964 and of the Civil War in 1965. The instructions to the big competition held to collect material on the logger tradition in 1969 motivated potential respondents as follows: “In addition to anecdotes, jokes, legends, stories, real events, sayings and songs we are eager to record descriptions of the life of the logger past and present. If you are not sure how to start, begin by telling us your life-story, for example.”
Over the past thirty years the Archives have annually held one or more prominent competition aimed at collecting tradition or oral history together with partners related to the topic. Whether the subject of the competition in question be an occupation (farmers), a workplace (the post office), a community (a TB sanatorium) or a special group (invalids), the questions and the resulting material have as a rule been strongly in the nature of life-story reminiscence. Little by little the life-story began to assume the status of a topic in itself; life-stories were collected from people living in the town of Vantaa in 1978, white-collar workers in 1987, Finnish women in 1990-91 and men in 1992-93. The Archives also receive a steady supply of life-stories sent in spontaneously even though they have not been specifically requested, for the Archives are known and there seems to be an ongoing social need to write. Even the unpublished life-stories nowadays bear so many features of collective tradition that they can with full justification be regarded as a viable genre of contemporary folklore on a par with urban legends and jokes. It has been a notable fact that men are less active in contributing than women (the ratio of men to women is often 1:2), but the number of pages submitted by them is on average greater. The total number of entries is usually in the region of thousands and together they amount to hundreds of thousands of pages.
Folklorists are only gradually “discovering” these materials as topics and sources for research; both attitudes and methods have first needed moulding. The impulse for launching a collection has often been the topical and social significance of a subject (such as tales of the unemployed in 1993) rather than the burning issues of the discipline at a particular time. Many researchers have found their way to the more recent materials in the wake of the political scientists, seeking to harmonise with their colleagues investigating oral history and drawing influences from the literary research into biography. The topic has been approached via such concepts as the life-story contract, survival story, discourse and the women’s perspective.
Life-stories have provided the “old” genres of folklore with a wealth of descriptions of performance situations and other contextual information. Life-stories are nowadays stored in a database of their own in the Archives, distinct from memoirs and ethnological descriptions, and can be coded with, say, keywords and place names. No set of concepts yet exists for the analysis of human feelings and experiences, but the need clearly exists. All in all less than half the life-story material has so far been analysed with the maximum precision possible; the remainder has been supplied with only abstracts and rough lists of motifs.
The problems surrounding life-story materials (or rather, the main points to be remembered, since they do not always need to be called problems) are, from the clients point of view, of three kinds: technical, source-critical and ethical. Technically the materials may seem difficult to access, because there are so many pages, the indexes leave much to be desired, and no original material can be borrowed from the Archives. As regards source criticism, the reader always has to debate whether the replies can be regarded as genuine and truthful and whether they can be used to make generalisations on the way people think in general. The ethical problems will certainly not be reduced when life-stories are digitised and accessible on the net. Care must be taken to ensure the informants data protection and copyright from the moment the material is produced and later in the Archives, when it is lent out to clients and published in monographs.
The Folklore Archives of the Finnish Literature Society, Helsinki
(FFN 18, November 1999: 23-24)