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5 Questions About NOT Talking Union

We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books. In our latest installment of the series, Janis Thiessen discusses her book NOT Talking Union.

See Leyla Vural’s review of Janis Thiessen’s book online now and in the upcoming Spring 2021 48.1 Issue. 

What’s it about and why does it matter?

NOT Talking Union is a labour history of a people—North American Mennonites—who have not been involved in the labour movement in significant numbers and, historically, have opposed union membership. This is an incredibly important history, because the majority of workers in Canada and (even more so) in the United States are not unionized, and this book helps us understand why. At the same time, the book reveals the utility—indeed, the necessity—of oral history for understanding late-twentieth-century religious history.

How does oral history contribute to your book?

The book is rooted in 115 oral histories that I conducted while traveling through Manitoba, Ontario, British Columbia, Ohio, Indiana, and California. These are now archived at the Mennonite Heritage Archives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?

Listening to and learning from people’s stories can be life-changing! Some of my own religious understandings and practices were transformed as a result of conducting these oral histories. As I write in the book, “oral history has the potential to bring about reconciliation for both individuals and communities by providing opportunities for people to be heard at length without judgment—a prospect that is all too rare outside the oral history interview context—and by bringing individuals into conversation with each other through books like this one.”

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

Fellow oral historians will appreciate its transparency and self-reflection on oral history methodology, as well as its discussion of reticence and collective memory. They’ll also be captivated, as I was, by the stories of American Mennonites and the the United Farm Workers’ strikes in California led by Cesar Chavez in the 1960s, and by the stories of Canadian Mennonites and conscientious objection to unions in the 1970s.

What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?

Reading/hearing uncomfortable stories is not the same thing as acting on those stories; I hope readers are inspired to seek justice. To quote the Almanac Singers (as I do in the book), “take it easy, but take it.”

 

StoryCorps and Crowdsourcing in the World of Digital Humanities

StoryCorps may perhaps be the United States’ most familiar and largest oral history project, yet many oral historians have trouble knowing whether to embrace it as such. Guest contributor Aubrey Parke suggests that another lens through which to consider StoryCorps is digital humanities, with its ethos of crowdsourcing and collaborative forms of publication. What can StoryCorps’ digital app for recording interviews suggest for the field and our methodologies?

By Aubrey Parke

Several months ago, I sat with my grandparents on their sunny screened-in porch and asked them how they fell in love. They told their story like a patchwork quilt, stringing together dozens of memories about Winstead’s drive-in and wringer-washer laundry on Saturday mornings. Behind all these anecdotes lay a background of economic and cultural forces that shaped their daily lives: a series of massive railroad mergers, anti-Catholic sentiment in the American Midwest, and shifting gender politics in the 1950s, to name a few. While we chatted, I recorded our conversation on the StoryCorps app. Forty-five minutes in, the recording automatically shut off. I snapped a picture of my grandparents, tagged our location, and uploaded the interview to the StoryCorps online archive.

Since the advent of StoryCorps as an independent non-profit in 2003, historians have debated whether recorded conversations like these qualify as “oral history.” The 2008 Oral History Association annual meeting even erupted into a contentious debate about the status and purpose of StoryCorps.  Many historians have questioned whether the project would produce a useful historical record or just a random, nostalgic mass of individual memories. According to the Oral History Association (OHA), the discipline of oral history underwent a “paradigm shift” in the 80s and 90s as practitioners began to not just gather interviews as primary source materials, but to actively construct historical narratives from oral sources. StoryCorps corresponds to the earlier form of oral history, which sought to create a popular record, not to analyze or construct narratives.

Oral historians have also criticized StoryCorps for creating an inaccessible archive. The nonprofit started with physical listening booths where anyone could record a 40-minute interview with an acquaintance or loved one in the presence of a moderator. Since its founding, StoryCorps has yielded approximately 75,000 interviews. Staff have edited a small fraction of the recordings into animated short films and weekly NPR audio features; the American Folklife Center section of the Library of Congress is the project’s official archive, but potential users must make a special request to access full interviews. 

Access to interviews suddenly expanded in 2015, when StoryCorps launched its app. People who record interviews on the app can choose to upload them directly to the StoryCorps online archive, a publicly searchable website. Copies of these interviews also go to the closed archive at the Library of Congress. StoryCorps and the Library of Congress have encouraged app users to tag their uploads with thoughtful keywords, such as “immigration” or “First Nations,” so that archivists and researchers can locate them. Currently, StoryCorps is in the process of making some interviews recorded in physical listening booths available online as well. Once published to the online archive, interviews can be heard in their entirety, not just as radio-length soundbites. 

With a searchable online archive, StoryCorps has gained new potential to claim scholarly space in the field of Digital Humanities (DH). Although DH is famously difficult to define, “The Short Guide to the Digital Humanities,” describes it as “new modes of scholarship and institutional units for collaborative, trans-disciplinary, and computationally engaged research, teaching and publication…in which print is no longer the primary medium.” Lacking a specific research objective, perhaps StoryCorps is not in and of itself a DH project, but the app and online archive belong in the world of DH as tools for crowdsourcing a diverse oral record of U.S. history. The StoryCorps app has great potential to facilitate new, collaborative modes of teaching and publication.

The application is intuitive and easy to use. After making an account, users can prepare an interview by entering their name, date, and location, and by customizing a list of questions. Users can swipe through their questions on the app while recording. When the interview stops, the device automatically saves the recording. The app then prompts users to fill out fields such as summary and keywords and, if  they wish to make the interview public, upload it to the StoryCorps website. Perhaps most importantly, the app allows people to store and share large audio files. For the average smartphone user, storing multiple hour-long .WAV or .MP3 files is unrealistic and sharing those files with other people is clunky at best. StoryCorps allows people to store their interviews online for free and share them by simply copy-pasting a link into a text or email.

The StoryCorps app enables crowdsourcing, a key tool of the digital humanities. A study presented at the 2013 Museums and the Web conference defines “crowdsourcing” in the digital age as “online projects entailing the active contribution of an undefined public.” The StoryCorps app has great potential to become a tool of generative crowdsourcing. For example, StoryCorps launched the Stonewall OutLoud project and asked people to use the app to “interview an elder and/or another remember of the LGBTQ community.” StoryCorps provided comprehensive guidelines to help participating individuals and organizations build organize and archive their interviews with relevant tags so future researchers could locate the records.

Any third-party organization can use the app and online archive as tools to create a searchable collection, such as the Labor Stories project launched by StoryCorps employees to demand better working conditions. In a 2015 article for the Oral History ReviewAlexander Freund argued that StoryCorps is antithetical to social history because it promotes individual storytelling rather than the systematic study of social groups. Crowdsourced projects like Stonewall OutLoud or Labor Stories could void Freund’s critique by using a targeted initiative to solicit stories from defined groups.

Scholars who want to incorporate oral history into their research can search the StoryCorps online archive and even create their own communities, circulating calls for digital contributions via social media. StoryCorps could better accommodate scholars by including more detailed instructions in the app about keywords and tagging. If interviews are well-coded, scholars and archivists will be able to locate them in the online repository. Public interviews can be downloaded, allowing researchers to use these digital texts in multimedia projects like documentaries, websites, and podcasts (pending, of course, permission from the original interviewer).

Oral historians who resist embracing StoryCorps as a product of their field could view it as a useful interdisciplinary tool from the Digital Humanities, one that enables researchers, teachers, and students to engage with oral sources as an important part of the historical record. One Chicago educator uses the StoryCorps app in her African-America history courses because she wants her students to “become creators of information…preparing narratives that will be archived in the American Folklife Center.” I struggle to think of something more synchronous with the spirit of Digital Humanities than a decentralized network of young people using cell phones and family histories to consciously build an archive. At the time of writing, StoryCorps users have already uploaded OVER 1300 interviews tagged as “COVID-19,” many of them recorded by students for online school projects. While some were obviously made with little effort and preparation, others offer insights into how the pandemic has affected working-class families, college students, and healthcare workers. Such crowdsourced collections would be a goldmine for future historians. And perhaps if somewhere, someday, a researcher wants to write about U.S. Catholicism or railroads in the 1950s, they will come across the conversation I recorded with my grandparents on September 19, 2020.


Aubrey Parke is an M.A. Public History student and Graduate Assistant at Duquesne University. In the past, she has worked as an oral historian, community archivist, and consulting firm analyst. She is from San Antonio, Texas, where she dedicates her spare time to work surrounding immigration and refugee issues.

5 Questions About They Call Me George: The Untold Story of The Black Train Porters

We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books. In our latest installment of the series, Cecil Foster discusses his book They Call Me George: The Untold Story of the Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada.

Keep an eye out for the review of Cecil Foster’s book in the upcoming Spring 2021 48.1 issue. 

What’s it about and why does it matter?

I address the important work by people of African descent to transform the conditions under which they lived in the Americas. Particularly, the book concentrates on the efforts by Black Sleeping Car Porters—mainly men from across the Americas—to fight for civil rights and equity.  It is the story of the struggle since the 1950s that transformed Canada, in particular, from the epitomized White Man’s country—or a northern archetypal version of the U.S. Confederate States—to become the current officially multicultural society where people of all races and ethnicities are officially recognized as full citizens.

How does oral history contribute to your book?

I had to rely on interviews of retired sleeping car porters, many of whom are now in their declining ages. It was an attempt to preserve their memories and to tell their stories. I wanted to capture how they felt in the moment of the struggle and how they viewed and organized their resistance to international white supremacy. For their struggle was at a time when for most Black men in North America a job as a sleeping car porter was the only real opportunity for employment. Black men across North America simply went on “the roads” regardless of national borders to make a living and to maintain their communities back home. It was also a time when North American railroads—especially those in Canada, where they are called railways—routinely recruited Black men from the West indies to work as Pullman porters, jobs that for all practical purpose turned them into good housekeepers in antebellum parlors/suites on wheels. The porters relied on Black women to keep the homes and communities safe and thriving while they were gone—often for weeks, often working as many as 18 hours a day traveling across the continent, and getting paid primarily in tips. In their organizations in the work place and in society, generally, they broke down hemispheric barriers to full citizenship for all Black people and at the same time universally for all Peoples of Color, whether this translated into desegregation in employment, housing, education, and politics. The porters imagined and fought for a different future than hemispheric segregated Jim Crowism for the Americas, and for a time with Black people as full citizens, living the good life and occupying the highest offices. It is for this reason that on the day of his swearing in as President of the United States of America, Barack Obama symbolically arrived in Washington in a retrofitted car of a train served by Black Sleeping Car Porters in their traditional uniforms.
 
In addition to the interviews, I relied heavily on the personal papers of sleeping car porters in various archives, especially those of the Canadian pioneering activist, Stanley Grizzle, in the Canadian Archives in Ottawa. Much of the information came from letters exchanged among these activists and allied politicians. Among them are the letters and speeches of Asa Philip Randolph as the universal president of initially the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids. This was a common struggle in North America.

I am very pleased with the cooperation I received from these porters, and with the reception They Call me George has received from their families, including so many of them in the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean—from people who claim the book as the story of their fathers, uncles, brothers, lovers, fellow community activists, and of the women who loved and allied with them in the early days of the common movement in Blackness for Civil Rights and political independence in the Americas. With an international television series in the works, the story of the times and the Black men and women as inspired by They Call Me George will become more fully recognized and celebrated across North America, particularly in Black homes and neighborhoods.

What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?

The oral tradition is personal and cultural. It allowed me to easily mix the abstract theorizing with the very real lived experiences. To this end, theory and praxis are on the same methodological footing, and I am not always sure if theory explains praxis or if praxis is the grounding for theory. But out of this mixing is a conversation on several levels, one of which is the production of a kind of historicism—as social evolution—that allows for the preservation of memories and the hopes for a better future as a continuum on its own. This way it is a narrative without the limitations of forcing specific agents and times into a particular national arc. Indeed, this approach allows for the very decentering of history as officially a modernist nationalist project. In so doing, it provides the means to excavate narratives and peoples that are usually excluded from the “official” historical narratives. Very appealing to me is that this methodology fairly well captures the transnationalism that is at the heart of the Black experiences both universally and in the particular.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

It would be akin to hearing stories of how the Black experience came into being and is still becoming something more concrete and desirable. For me this is no different from common practices in Black communities, with, in an ancestral spirt and out of the need to know themselves, younger generations asking their grandparent and parents what life was like in this past—what contributed to the creation of the current social and familial conditions. From these stories the current generation can devise strategies for the present and also plan for the future—strategies and plans that would be handed off to each subsequent generation to be modified in their times, perhaps idealistically until the day that all Black people are truly and fully citizens. Hopefully, They Called Me George helps to fill in some gaps in the story of this social evolution into full human dignity.

What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?

That in some of the toughest and most dehumanizing times, Black people universally did not stop dreaming and fighting for a better world—not only immediately for themselves and their kids and their future generations, but for everybody in all times. They truly believed that to be fully human was to live in social fraternity in the traditional sense so long associated with a common citizenship that we think of as a passport to social justice for all. It is why in the first place they formed, given the times, the appropriately named Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids. Fraternity mattered. And carried along by this idealism, they helped to change the world in their time while inspiring future generations to continue as agents of social change in subsequent times, until the symbolic train journey of freedom for all peoples—but primarily Black people and their legacy of historical enslavement and neo-enslavement through segregation—arrive at the final destination that is freedom and justice.

Preserving Yiddish Language & Culture through Bilingual Oral History Access

The Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project recently completed an NEH-funded project to transform its oral history collection through the use of cutting edge oral history technologies that allow exploration of interviews through bilingual indexes. Here, Wexler Oral History staff members share their process and innovative results. 

By Christa Whitney and Carole Renard

The Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project recently completed a project that can serve as a model for enhanced access to oral history interviews, especially for multilingual collections. The project is an exciting use of the open-source Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS) software to allow for search and browsing within interviews through timecoded transcripts and indices.

Since the establishment of the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project in 2010, creating access to interviews has been a priority. For a variety of linguistic, ideological, and political reasons, Yiddish resources have not always been accessible. Given this, the over 1,000 video interviews in the Wexler Oral History Project collection are of particular value to scholars, museum curators, documentary filmmakers, and the general public interested in learning about the history, legacy, and changing nature of Yiddish language and culture in the 20th and 21st centuries. Furthermore, the Yiddish Book Center has a history of making primary source materials accessible—our digitized Yiddish book collection includes over 11,000 titles, most of which are now searchable with Optical Character Recognition (OCR)—and our oral history project follows that model. A majority of the interviews we’ve collected are available in full on our website, something that puts these new primary sources out there for researchers and the public. This latest project allowed us to go beyond basic access to allow for viewers to really dig into the interviews with search features at the individual interview level. It’s our hope that these new features will increase the utility of the collection. 

Thanks to a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)’s Division of Preservation and Access and additional donors, we worked from 2017 to 2020 to enhance access to a large portion of the Wexler Oral History Project’s interview collection. As part of this project, we transcribed 400 interviews, created timecoded indices of over 650 interviews (including bilingual indices for over 150 Yiddish-language interviews), and created a thesaurus of keywords, gathering alternate spellings from widely used encyclopedic sources. We worked with the Audio Transcription Center to create the transcripts and a wonderfully talented team of staff, interns, and contractors to edit the transcripts and index the interviews. All the timecoding of transcripts and indexing was done with the open-source OHMS software. As of October 2020, you can now access the interviews with enhanced access on many of the interview pages within the Wexler Oral History Project digital collection.

The multilingual nature of the collection—which includes interviews in English, Yiddish, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Hebrew, and a smattering of other languages—created particular challenges in terms of transcription and standardization of the project-specific subject terms and non-English words used in the interviews. Though we had collected keywords about each interview over the years, we did not have a central location to track and standardize spellings prior to this project. The organization had a limited style sheet, but that didn’t scratch the surface of the ultimately thousands of Yiddish words, geographical locations, and proper nouns used throughout the interviews. Therefore, we created a master thesaurus gathering all these terms, privileged spellings selected, and documented alternate spellings. We referenced dictionaries and central naming authorities such as the Library of Congress and the Getty Thesaurus of Geographical Terms as well as field-specific authorities such as the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and JewishGen. Names of geographic locations in Eastern and Central Europe created a special challenge since many towns and cities have multiple names depending on the language and historical period. Creating the thesaurus of privileged and alternative spellings allows us to both use consistent spellings across the entire collection for transcripts and index segment titles, and list alternate spellings as keywords so that any user searching an alternative spelling of a keyword would still find the relevant interview segments in an indexed interview. Beyond the immediate uses within the oral history collection, we look forward to how these vocabulary lists will be of use across the organization and even beyond.

Another challenge arose along the way: Though we selected only English-language interviews to transcribe, many interviews contain segments in another language (most often Yiddish) when a narrator might have recited a poem, sung a song, or recalled a proverb from the family. We transcribed all of these interview segments in-house with our multilingual team of staff and part-time workers. Though Yiddish is written in the Hebrew alphabet, we transcribed Yiddish segments transliterated in Latin characters for ease of formatting within the OHMS editor and viewer, to enhance access to viewers who cannot read Yiddish in its original alphabet, and to better reflect the nuances of the narrator’s personal Yiddish dialect. Including translations of all non-English terms in the transcript serves as an additional in-line guide for any viewers unfamiliar with the terms narrators use.

Indices can serve as both alternatives and compliments to transcripts. The segment titles function as a table of contents, allowing for visitors to the website to do a quick browse of an interview to see if there are segments of particular interest. OHMS includes various fields, giving options to include detailed summaries, transcript segments, and more at each segment. For this project, especially given that many interviews indexed would also be transcribed, we decided to use simply segment titles and keywords. Since it is hidden in the main view of the index, the keyword field was a wonderful place to include alternative spellings that enhance search.

The project also allowed us to take full advantage of the bilingual indexing feature in OHMS. A major portion of our work was to index over 150 of our Yiddish language interviews, creating access and search in both Yiddish and English. Viewers can toggle between the two languages to search and find interview segments of interest through segment titles and keywords. We also bilingually indexed several interviews in Polish, Spanish, and Russian to create segment-level access in both the original language and English.

The custom viewer we built is an example of how OHMS can be integrated into a website’s look and feel for a streamlined experience for viewers. Working with our web development company CogApp, we built a custom module in Drupal to be able to display and search the transcripts and indices alongside the video interviews. Since the oral history collection is accessed within the organization’s website, it was important to integrate the viewer into the existing color scheme and style. For those interviews that are both transcribed and indexed, viewers have the option of toggling back and forth between its transcript and its index; this way, the interviews can be viewed either alongside a word-by-word transcript or by skipping thematically through indices. Though this approach may not work for oral history collections that use library or archival content management systems that include discovery features, it does offer an approach for non-profits, businesses, or other oral history projects working within a branded environment.

The final component of this grant-funded project was to surface the family photographs, historical documents, and other artifacts we’ve collected as digital objects along with many of the oral history interviews over the years. These in and of themselves comprise a fascinating and valuable collection. Paired with the oral history interviews, they add another layer of visual interest. For those interviews that have associated artifacts, they are now viewable on the interview pages. Along with the interview highlights, they can serve as entry points to the collection for those who may not want to watch the entire one- to two-hour interview recordings.

The Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project is a collection of video interviews about Yiddish language and culture recorded on six continents in eight languages. As interviews are structured in a focused life-history format, the collection includes stories and personal accounts about a broad range of Jewish identities and human experience. Since 2010, we’ve collected over 1,000 interviews with people of all ages and backgrounds. We are excited to share these new features of our digital collection with the world and hope it will help people learn about the culture represented by the collection as well as serve as a useful model to the oral history field for the possibilities to enhance access to oral histories. To learn more about the ways to browse and search our collection, check out our user guide. We invite you to explore the growing collection.


Christa P. Whitney is the director of the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project, a growing collection of more than 1,000 in-depth video interviews about Yiddish language and culture with people of all ages and backgrounds. Originally from Northern California, she became interested in Yiddish while studying comparative literature at Smith College. For the past ten years, she has traveled near and far in search of Yiddish stories, gaining skills in filmmaking, video production, and archival preservation along the way.

Carole Renard is the Wexler Oral History Project’s Coordinator. She began working with the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project in 2016 as an intern processing interviews, and joined the full-time team in 2017 as the NEH Project Coordinator. She also conducts oral history interviews for the project. Carole holds a BA from Smith College in Anthropology and Jewish Studies and a MA from University College London in Jewish Studies.

self care

Troy Reeves on Building Our Practices of Self Care

Inspired by a session at the recent Oral History Association annual meeting, which occurred virtually in October, oral historian Troy Reeves reflects on a particular peril of the profession: interviews can be emotional and traumatic, and interviewers may not be as versed in self-care as we are in asking good questions. Troy invites us to participate in a conversation that considers the importance of self-care and oral history.

Since 1999, I have earned a living as an oral historian. In that time I have seen myriad changes in my chosen career, and I would say all of them have bettered the profession, particularly if we continue to push forward with individual and structural changes to overcome four centuries of racism in our country.

While I try daily to listen and learn, to become a better person and to lead a program that becomes more inclusive of our campus story, I struggle. While my struggle—as a person who checks off just about all the privilege boxes possible—pales in comparison with others, I still find it hard, particularly in the last eight months with COVID-19 becoming a global pandemic, to be the best oral historian possible.

Two events last month brought all this to a personal boil. First, I attended the 54th Oral History Association Annual Meeting. This virtual event offered scores of sessions, as usual, so many quality ones during each time slot, that I had to make tough decisions. During Friday morning, for example, one could choose from 10 concurrent sessions. I chose number #082: This is How We Grieve: A Self-Reflexive Conversation on Emotionally Charged Interviews and Their Effect on the Oral History Interviewer. As the ancient Grail Knight said in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade—RIP Sean Connery—I “chose wisely.”

While I won’t try to summarize this session in detail here, I will say it consisted of four women from Oklahoma State University, discussing how their work effects them. I was particularly impressed with the two people on that panel I knew best–Julianna Nykolaiszyn & Tanya Finchum–one formerly and the other currently with the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program. Their two presentations struck me in how they laid bare examples of their work and the toil it can take.  It reminded me of the power of oral history, and of how I can do it better. I left so impressed with all 4 presenters and their willingness to discuss their work through the lens of emotion & grief. 

Second, I conducted an interview for our Documenting COVID-19 Oral History Project with a person who donated material to the University Archives’ Documenting COVID-19 Archives and agreed to sit for an oral history. This narrator never stepped foot on our campus in March and April but enrolled and took an online grief course through our medical school. This New Yorker then told me about his hospital work during those weeks while still taking the UW course, testing cultures for the coronavirus. After we said our good-byes, I sat there silent for at least 15 minutes, unable to really deal with what I just recorded. 

So, those two events combined to bring me here: to sit down and write out my thoughts on oral history and self-care and see if others might want to join me. 

Truthfully, the two things above are not the only reasons I decided to write this piece. The 2013 book, Oral History Off the Record: Toward an Ethnography of Practice, also started my thinking on self-reflection and writing about it. When I reviewed it for the Public Historian, I didn’t specifically mention self-care, but I did applaud the editors and contributors for in their words: “embrac[ing] the messiness of human experience and interaction, and treating speaking and listening as profound and imperfect processes” (7). I then followed and ended my review with: “If we do, we will go as a profession and individually as human beings. Both worthy goals.”

Along with that book, a 2017 OHR blog post by Erin Jessee helped inspire this post. Jessee has become one of the most influential oral historians regarding interviewing people on traumatic and/or sensitive topics. Andrew Shaffer, OHR’s then social media coordinator, asked Erin several questions that allowed her to expand on her OHR piece, “Managing Danger in Oral Historical Fieldwork.” One question and answer stood out to me. “How can oral historians do a better job of spotting signs of trauma in each other, and responding positively?  

This is important, because I get the impression that many oral historians feel embarrassed or ashamed to admit when their physical and mental health has been negatively impacted by their research.”

***

Along with October’s OHA meeting, Off the Record, and Jessee’s blog post, I need to discuss my own interviewing history. So, I have conducted hundreds of oral history interviews, either life histories or topical interviews on one of the dozens of projects I’ve overseen since 1999. I have avoided, however, interviews and projects on “Emotionally Charged” topics. Why? Well, I never felt I had the training needed. 

Let me tell you a story. When I worked in Idaho, I collaborated with a high school teacher. She wanted her students to interview veterans. Actually, she brought me in because she had been doing projects with her classes, and she wanted me to speak to them as an “expert.” For most of my adult life, I have felt about the word, expert, Barkley has said basically that only the only expert is God. (Now, as an uncloseted atheist, I feel no one is.) 

I have digressed. One year, the teacher and I came up with a bolder project. We’d work with the state veterans’ agency during an event they hold once a year, to which they invite veterans who had fallen on hard times to come and seek help. Our plan was to see if any of those veterans would consider being interviewed by one of our students. That was the plan.

It ended up turning out okay, in spite of me. Fortunately, a couple of social workers took it upon themselves to monitor, along with me, the room where the students and veterans met. They helped mitigate issues almost before they arose. But some issues did arise, mainly when students trained in oral history but not in sensitive topics struggled to deal with what they heard. I did not give them the tools to help them process and deal with them, because I didn’t have those tools myself. 

So, that ill-conceived and implemented project made me hesitant here in Wisconsin to pursue similar topics. And while I feel I’ve grown in my 13 years here, specifically learning about meditation and trying to implement it into my daily life, I still hesitate when students come to me and want to embark on oral history projects that seem from the onset to be fraught with possible stories and anecdotes difficult for anyone to hear, let alone teenagers and young adults.

So, this anecdote stands as another reason I hope this post ends up having a life beyond itself: our students. I shouldn’t speak for my fellow campus oral history leaders, but I will. Many, maybe all, of us end up working with classes or hiring students who then conduct oral history interviews for themselves, for us, or both. Many of those students, at least in my experience, want to interview people involved in emotionally-deep topics. While we can hope that during their time on our campus they have learned the skills necessary to properly process the difficult stories they hear from their narrators, we shouldn’t leave it to chance.

***

I grew up in rural Idaho, and in a world where boys shouldn’t cry. While never called a “cry baby”—and I would have remembered if it happened, I certainly rarely contained my emotions. Still can’t. When my father passed away in the summer of 2016, I volunteered to be one of the speakers at his Celebration of Life. My father and I had grown apart over my years in Wisconsin, but yet l made it only eight words into my talk before breaking down.

Also, I only participated in traditional therapy once in college. For me, and my tightest OHA colleagues can attest, I refill my bucket by meeting with and talking to them. So, if anyone who did anything to make OHA’s recent virtual conference happen reads this, you all offered up a great event. The world gave you lemons, and you made some swell-tasting lemonade.

So, why lay all this bare? After leaving the OHA Annual Meeting session referenced above, I wanted to see if anyone would consider discussing and enacting ways I which we oral historians might learn from others and build our practices of self-care. Maybe, it becomes like-minded folks meeting virtually to talk through their work and how they handle or don’t handle it. Others might want to write about their work and its related challenges of self-care, as I am doing here. Perhaps what starts with meetings & blog posts could end up being more.

Listen, I agree 100% that we should make sure we support our narrators first and foremost, particularly those who we ask to discuss highly charged topics or events. When I co-led the 2018 update to the OHA’s Principles and Best Practices, our group created the “For Participants …” document as one way to focus on their needs. But, if we don’t take care of ourselves, we don’t give our narrators the time and focus they deserve. 

***

I started writing this essay on November 1st, two days before Election Day. Between that, a global pandemic, and my mother’s and a good friend’s passing, it’s been a year. But, as of now, I haven’t lost anyone to COVID-19. And, let me be honest here: I’m a white male. When my world seems rough, I still have layers and layers of privilege–including a good job with health care–that make my bad days pale in comparison to many others.

Now, I’m working on a piece on self-care as I watch the news, on the days after the election, and I finalized it on Veterans’ Day, which brought back into focus the veterans I’ve interviewed and the projects, including the aforementioned one, that included interviewing them. It all propounded my thoughts about how vital it is to be a well-rounded oral historian. To me, that means not only doing the things I and others talk about in workshops: researching your topic or person, crafting good, open-ended questions, listening well, etc, but also figuring out how to take care of ourselves before, during, and after our interviews and projects. And I’d like it to be a collective thing. I’ve directly quoted or paraphrased the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” a few times during my career to make a point. It applies here too. We do things better when we do them together.


Since June 2007 Troy Reeves has led the oral history program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives. From 1999-2006 he directed the Idaho Oral History Center in Boise. In both of those positions, Reeves has overseen the key components of managing an oral history program—collecting and curating oral history recordings, as well as communicating and collaborating with interested individuals about the art and science of oral history.

Along with these program leadership tasks, he has managed or facilitated dozens and dozens of oral history projects in Wisconsin and Idaho on cultural, political, and environmental history. Along with these projects, Reeves has held leadership roles in the Oral History Association, including six years as the Oral History Review’s managing editor and co-chairing two taskforces during the 2010s—including one that updated the Principles & Best Practices.   

Featured image by Mark Doliner, used with a Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0 license

Say and Seal: Lives at Yale during COVID-19

Across the world, university students’ lives were upended by the coronavirus pandemic, with the essential community structures enabled by face-to-face interaction no longer possible. Yale senior Henry Jacob and his co-producers launched a podcast to help keep the community connected, with a built in archival structure that preserves the podcast as a primary source, documenting Yale students’ lives during this tumultuous time.

By Henry Jacob

On March 6, 2020, I left my dorm unaware that I would not return for months. Because I needed to leave at 4 AM to catch a flight that morning, I gave an inadequate goodbye to J12A, my former room. But COVID-19 separated me not only from the courtyards, but also from the community of Saybrook, my residential college. I, like countless other students, soon discovered the difficulties of maintaining relationships on Zoom. 

Just as I could not return to Yale, I never traveled to the libraries I planned to visit this past summer. Unable to access undigitized archives from across the U.S. and in Canada, I needed to reengineer my history senior thesis around a different topic and sources. Upon recognizing the obstacles of conducting remote research, I also recognized the importance of using the spoken word, rather than the written word, to record this unique moment.

For this reason, my former suite mate Micah Young, Graduate Fellow Adam Haliburton, and I created a podcast that will unite Yalies today and serve future historians. This monthly show, titled Say and Seal, includes news reports, interviews, and other content on and for the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.  This podcast also serves as a form of oral history because it collects and preserves the experiences of members from the community today in a single source for posterity. Indeed, every episode will be housed in the Yale Library Manuscripts and Archives. We hope that in 50 years historians can utilize these audio recordings to understand and analyze this unique age.  

The title Say and Seal captures our two primary goals:  we encapsulate our objective to speak with and listen to the stories of Yalies today and preserve them for posterity. In equal measure, this name acknowledges our parallel desire to connect members from Saybrook. The title also serves as a pun and reference the Right Honorable Viscount Saye and Sele, a step-founder of the college. 

I conceived of Say and Seal while revising the transcript of my interview with Adam Haliburton, Graduate Fellow of Saybrook. In June 2020, I spoke to Adam as part of an interview series for The Yale Historical Review, an undergraduate journal. While reading through our conversation, I realized that Adam and I went completely off-script from our original plan to discuss race relations at Yale in history and today. Instead, our two-hour chat primarily revolved around Saybrook. Even though Adam and I first met a few years ago, our shared love for Saybrook made us fast friends. After a few more days of discussions, we decided to start the venture that has become Say and Seal. But before moving ahead, we added two more members to our team. My former suite mate and close friend of Adam, Micah Young, joined as a co-host. In addition, University Archivist and Saybrook Fellow Michael Lotstein joined as a mentor to this project. As a group, we united under a common mission to use oral history as a tool for socially distanced community building and structuring the archive directly into a podcast.

Say and Seal Episode 0

Over the past months, we have refined the scope and content of Say and Seal. First and foremost, we seek to reconstruct the collegiate atmosphere that our listeners would enjoy in a regular semester. We even include soundscapes to connect students to spaces of New Haven they cannot explore this year. In addition to providing news on the global, national, and local developments of COVID-19, we interview members from the Yale community. Through these conversations, we provide a space for a diverse array of students, faculty, staff, and administrators to express themselves. While we seek to reach listeners today, these interviews double as oral history, creating a record of this unprecedented university experience.

This fall, we have started to release our first episodes. In our introductory, 10-minute pilot, we outlined these objectives and established the framework for our project. In Episode 1: The Gap Year, we speak with three students who decided to take a leave of absence, as well as the Dean of Undergraduate Admissions. In Episode 2, we will combine pre and post-election reactions from a variety of students and faculty.

Say and Seal Episode 1

Over the academic year, we will continue to expand the podcast to include as many perspectives as possible. For example, we lament how this emergency limits participation in many academic and extracurricular opportunities that enliven campus. For this reason, we will also invite organizations—such as an a cappella group—to showcase their work in future installments.

Say and Seal will also benefit coming generations of Yalies. Inspired by Yale Library’s Help Us Make History project, we will archive these recordings for future historians through Aviary, a platform connected to the Yale University Library Manuscripts and Archives Audiovisual Collections. By storing these audio recordings, we will document the contours of this exceptional period in Yale’s history. Aviary, a cloud-based audiovisual platform, will keep the individual episodes as well as stand-alone, unedited, full interviews to provide a balanced array of accounts of this time. Our Aviary site exists under the aegis of the Yale Library Manuscripts and Archives and will remain there, accessible online for coming decades.

The pandemic has created a crisis for academic exploration and personal relationships. But physical distance need not inhibit intellectual conversation nor separate Saybrugians from each other. Indeed, even though I am living at home instead of at J12A this year, I feel even more enmeshed within Saybrook than I did in March. Through Say and Seal, we hope to respond to this period of isolation by providing a platform for human connection in the present and future.


Henry Jacob is a senior at Yale majoring in History and pursuing a Certificate in Spanish. His scholarly interest lies in Panama. When not in the archives or the classroom, Henry spends his time with undergraduate journals, serving as Editor in Chief of The Yale Historical Review. After graduating this coming May, Henry hopes to continue his research on Panama’s role as a cynosure of imperial designs and desires across centuries and empires.

Oral History and Clio: Connecting Oral History, Sense of Place, and a Public Audience

Digital technologies have created the opportunity to share oral history interviews in new ways, as evidenced by the many projects we discuss here on the blog and in the journal’s media reviews. The educational nonprofit, Clio, offers a place-based website and mobile interface to experience history where it happened. A recent update allows integration of audio files into the app, and our guest authors discuss ways oral historians can connect their interviews to the physical environment. 

By Kathleen Thompson and David Trowbridge

The twenty-first century is a digital age when vast amounts of information is at our fingertips. For better and for worse, most people carry a device that allows them to access location-based information at nearly every moment of the day. This presents an incredible opportunity for oral historians, as it is now possible to embed oral histories into the physical landscape. Not only would this vastly increase the reach for oral history collections, this approach has the potential to connect our sense of place with the work of historians. Recognizing this potential, and with the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities and West Virginia Humanities, enhancements to the digital history platform Clio now make it possible to embed oral histories into the landscape.   

Our hope is to share this free and open technology with as many historians as possible. We also hope that a free tool like this might support past and future projects. Historians in all branches of the field have adapted to technological changes to enhance the work of researching, archiving, and communicating the past. In oral history, new technology has helped with the recording, editing, and preservation of interviews and narrations. Technology in museums, historical sites, and other cultural spaces has greatly enhanced the ability of historians to connect the public to history through scholarship and the tangible connections created through artifacts, images, and sounds. Clio is just one of many digital interpretive spaces that can provide opportunities to reach the public. The platform is designed to support individual entries for landmarks, walking tours, virtual tours of museums and sites, driving tours, digital story maps, and even hiking trails that can work with or without a cell signal. Recent updates to Clio that allow the inclusion of audio files open vast possibilities for oral historians to use the platform to make more interviews available, create digital exhibits or additions to exhibits, and educate students on the methodology of oral history.

Thanks to a recent grant and partnership with the American Foundation for the Blind, Clio offers text-to-speech and also has the capacity to include narration and oral histories within individual entries and tours. In each entry, there is space to include two audio clips; these can be a narration of the written content for ease of access and accessibility or audio files of interviews and oral histories. If copyright issues are a concern or if a historian would preferably include a link to an existing repository, there are multiple places to include links to archival sources. In practice, oral historians have found that including short clips from more extensive projects and a link to the full project archive has been a great way to “use” Clio to spread awareness of their work. Since that entails driving web traffic from our project to other websites and projects, part of our goal in writing this short piece is to reassure historians that this is precisely our intent. Clio was built to connect the public to the work of historians, so if someone discovers an oral history collection while they are using Clio, our project has been a success.  

While most oral historians are likely thinking of examples of how they might utilize location-based technology to share oral history, we thought it might be helpful to include a few examples of how this has been used by others. For example, the authors of the West Virginia Women’s History Trail mixed a narrator’s voiceover with oral history clips and interviews with scholars. There is the option to embed additional audio tracks along the route of a tour. This example from the Marshall University Campus Tour shows how a historian can embed stories of retired faculty and alumni along the walk between campus buildings and landmarks, and the same approach could work well for a neighborhood tour to create a sort of “if these walls could talk” feel. Including oral histories within a Clio entry allows the visitor to connect to the physical space around them and connect to the people in that history by listening to their words at the same time. This allows history to come alive in a sense, connecting the public with the lived experiences of other people.

For those who teach courses in oral history or public history, this technology might offer an opportunity to engage students in creating a real product based on historical research and writing. Perhaps a class project could have students choose local topics to research and write entries on, with interviews conducted with local residents featured in the entry or tour. An instructor might also use existing interviews to teach students how to choose and edit audio clips for use in interpretation. Clio began as a project to allow students to do the work of historians. Examples of this student work include the entry for the Julian Bond Memorial Bench in Washington, DC, where a student interviewed Freedom Rider Joan C. Browning and Bond’s widow, Pam Horowitz. Another student interviewed a former “Rosie the Riveter” about her experiences working at the Sylvania Plant in Huntington, WV.

As a platform, Clio offers oral historians and oral history repositories a variety of ways to connect their work and collections to broader public audiences. In addition to the critical work of capturing and preserving oral histories for information and perspectives of past events, making oral histories available to the public in some form can significantly enhance a listener’s understanding and connection to history. We hope that Clio can provide a digital space to preserve oral histories and use them to interpret historical and cultural spaces. Museums and historical sites that have oral histories preserved within their archives and digital files can make those available to the public or create museum tours to add to their physical exhibits using audio recordings. For historians or organizations interested in creating oral histories or other resources in Clio, other groups have had success in applying for grant funding from various local, state, and national organizations for these projects. Because Clio is a free platform, we hope this could help historians make full use of any funding, by focusing funds on stipends for colleagues, recent graduates, and students.  


Dr. Kathleen Thompson is serving as a Preserve West Virginia AmeriCorps 2020-2021 member working with the Clio Foundation. She currently teaches history at several colleges and universities and leads tours of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater.

Dr. David Trowbridge (Ph.D. Kansas, 2008) is an associate professor of history at Marshall University. In 2013, he began work on Clio, a website and mobile application that connects people to nearby history and culture.

2020 Virtual Issue: The Quest for Democracy

Since 2016 the OHR editorial team has produced virtual issues to complement the theme of the Oral History Association’s annual meeting, selecting articles from the OHR archive that shed light on the topic of today’s cutting edge oral history scholarship. This year, we explore “The Quest for Democracy: One Hundred Years of Struggle.”

From the editors and interns

We are pleased to announce the 2020 OHR virtual issue: “The Quest for Democracy: One Hundred Years of Struggle.”

For the celebration of the Oral History Association’s fiftieth anniversary in 2016, the Oral History Review published its first-ever virtual issue, which reintroduced conversations that have been captivating oral historians for decades. That issue, and the virtual issues that have followed, have brought together articles drawn from nearly a half century of oral history scholarship published in the pages of OHR, offering scholars around the world access to curated collections of essays, temporarily freed from their paywalls. These virtual issues enable the oral history community to assess the continuing relevance of articles published in the flagship international journal, connecting them to questions the field is wrestling with today. By putting these articles in conversation with one another, we are able to reflect on the historiography of our field and consider with fresh eyes what, to quote Alessandro Portelli, “makes oral history different.” 

Produced in tandem with the 2020 Oral History Association annual meeting by OHR interns Lauren Connors (Kean University) and Sydney Davies (West Chester University), this virtual issue explores the annual meeting theme, “The Quest for Democracy: One Hundred Years of Struggle,”  selected to mark the centennial celebration of the passage of the 19th Amendment in the United States. This virtual issue discusses the opportunities and limitations of democracy, including the role that oral history has had as a democratizing force. 


OHR 2020 summer interns were Lauren Connors (History major, Kean University) and Sydney Davies (History major, West Chester University). The editorial team is grateful for their many contributions to not only this virtual issue, but to the ongoing work of the journal and its blog.  

Featured image: A broadside created in 1915 by the North Dakota Votes for Women League. Special Collections at Johns Hopkins University. Used courtesy of a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license

 

(Virtual) OHA Annual Meeting Preview

The Oral History Association’s annual meeting is right around the corner, with the theme “The Quest for Democracy: One Hundred Years of Struggle.” While we aren’t traveling to Baltimore as planned, we do hope to see colleagues and friends, new and old, over Zoom and in SecondLife. Let us know what you are looking forward to at this year’s event.

From the editors

Normally this time of year, your OHR editors are packing their bags, sending invitations for our editorial board meeting, shipping books for review, and highlighting the sessions we plan to attend in our OHA annual meeting program. But 2020 is not your typical year. This year, we will send Zoom links for the editorial board meeting and still highlight the program. But like many of our colleagues in the oral history community, we will join the meeting virtually, and we hope to see you remotely too. 

Typically, OHA’s annual meeting is a professional highlight of the year, not only for the chance to hear the latest scholarship in the field, but also because the OHA membership is comprised of the most welcoming, diverse, and talented group of people.  In short, we go to see our friends and make new ones. This year, there will be no receptions or meet-ups in the hotel bar. Instead we will socialize in SecondLife and participate in presentations in Zoom.

The OHR editorial team will be scouting out articles and blog posts, just like we always do. Usually you could find one of us sitting at the OHR table in the vendor’s hall, giving out books for review. It won’t be quite the same this year, but you can still give us a wave when you see us, and choose your books virtually! And please pitch us your ideas and let us know what you are working on. 

We will also participate in sessions. Here’s when and where you can find us:

Oral Histories of Science and the AIP/NASA Heliophysics Oral History Project
Tuesday, October 20, 1:30 to 3:00 pm Zoom: Room 3
Roundtable Panelists: Joanna B. Behrman, American Institute of Physics Jon B. Phillips, American Institute of Physics Ryan Hearty, American Institute of Physics Samantha Thompson, Smithsonian Institute Chair: David B. Zierler, American Institute of Physics
Commentators: David Caruso, Science History Institute, Kristine Harper, Florida State University

Telling COVID’s Stories: Implications for the Field (panel focused on OHR’s special section on Oral History and COVID-19).
Wednesday, October 21, 3:30 to 5:00 pm Zoom: Room 9
Roundtable Panelists: Janneken Smucker, West Chester University Abigail Perkiss, Kean University Anna F. Kaplan, DC Oral History Collaborative Stephen Sloan, Baylor University Jason Kelly, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis

Disaster Testimonies: Climate Change, Natural Hazards, and the Lived Experience of Extreme Weather 
Thursday, October 22, 11:30 to 1:00 pm Zoom: Room 3
Roundtable Panelists: Deb Anderson, Monash University Abigail Perkiss, Kean University Carmen Bolt, American University

Multi-Year Digital Oral History Project Design in the College Classroom. OHA Annual Meeting Mini-workshop
Friday, October 23, 11:30 to 1:00 pm Zoom: Room 5
Workshop Leaders: Janneken Smucker, West Chester University, Charles Hardy, West Chester University, and WCU students Bryce Evans, Kayla DiPaolo, and Nicholas Heydeman


Janneken Smucker, David Caruso, and Abby Perkiss serve as co-editors of the Oral History Review.

Featured image from simpler times, at the 2018 OHA Annual Meeting in Montreal. 

Uninvited Guests, or Zoom Bombing the Oral History Interview

In OHR‘s ongoing series investigating how COVID-19 is changing the field of oral history, this post by Shu Wan discusses the implications of “digitizing” the interview process itself, with remote interviews conducted over web cams and microphones. What happens when uninvited guests appear in the interview?

By Shu Wan

During the COVID-19 pandemic, an increasing number of individual historians and GLAM institutions became interested in documenting the traumatic experiences of American citizens during the crisis. Due to the risk of exposure brought by face-to-face communication, many of these projects were conducted on Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) platforms, such as Zoom, Bluejeans Meeting, and Skype. Thanks to technological innovations in the past decade, oral historians could remotely record oral history from home. VoIP and other remote interviewing platforms demonstrate the potential of digital technologies in advancing oral history practices.

Almost a decade ago, oral historians launched the Oral History in the Digital Age initiative to promote the use of digital tools and devices in recording, processing, preserving, and exhibiting oral history raw materials and interpretations. The current proliferation of remote oral history practices, in a field that typically prioritized face-to-face interviews, may indicate the burgeoning of an “Oral History in the Digital Age 2.0”, characterized by the “digitization” of the relationship between oral historians and their human subjects, rather than of the media files themselves. Just as with the digitization of audio and the dissemination of interviews over the internet, digitization of the interview process also requires examination of our ethical responsibilities as oral historians.

In order to document the experiences of Chinese living in the United States during the pandemic, I opted to interview remotely. I wanted to record the Chinese nationals’ and immigrants’ vulnerability to the dual-threat of epidemic and xenophobia, so I conducted oral history interviews with some Chinese college students and residents in Iowa City. While interviewing one of them several weeks ago, our virtual meeting was interrupted by an uninvited guest’s posting of a couple of memes and pictures. With the concern of my interviewees’ information security and privacy, I had no choice but to end the video conversation. In light of increasing coverage of similar hacking behavior in the media, now known as “Zoom-bombing,” I am not alone in encountering uninvited guests’ harassment. However, I may be one of the first to report its incidence while recording a remote oral history interview.

Reflecting on this experience, I could identify at least two potential ethical concerns surrounding the new procedure of conducting oral history interviews online. A first primary concern for oral historians is the protection of interviewees’ privacy. For the interviewees who desire to remain anonymous, the disclosure of face, sound, or other identifiable information to the third party may place them at high risk. Thankfully, services like Zoom have responded to uninvited guests and enabled password protection and other means of eliminating intrusions.

We must also take into account how to process those interviews with unexpected interruptions by those uninvited guests. In my case, the bomber only sent irrelevant—rather than obscene—images and words. However, once some harmful or disrespectful information interfered with the recording of the interview, how should we process the original materials for further research and preservation? Should such intrusions be kept or edited out? This dilemma may provoke ethical debates surrounding the integrity and completion of archiving and preserving oral history materials.

The pandemic has encouraged many oral historians to supplement the traditional in-person interviewing routine with virtual meetings. However, before taking the next step, we must consider the ethical implications of the “new normal,” assessing what taking the interview remote will mean for the process, the archive, and future research.


Shu Wan is a Ph.D. student in the History Department at the University at Buffalo. Before matriculating in the program this fall, he studied as a graduate student in the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Iowa.

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