By Kate Brenner
I am a child of the internet age. I have never not had a computer in my house. Being in Columbia’s Oral History Master’s Program (OHMA), I’ve read articles for class that describe how oral historians recorded and edited audio in the past. Every time I read one of those articles, I call my mom, who used to work editing tape in the 70s and 80s. “How did you do it?” I ask. “How did you edit with a razor, with no undo button? If it was still like that, I would never have entered this field.” She always laughs, saying they didn’t have that technology and didn’t know how easy it could be.
It’s really a moot point though. We do have this technology. Oral history is now something that more people can create and consume. People can record audio on their phones, later uploading it to a program like Hindenburg or even Garage Band to make edits. So when people ask me what I’m studying, why does the following exchange occur?
“I’m studying oral history.”
“Oh. What’s that?”
To the general public, oral history is a thing you do when you have an assignment in school to interview someone in your family, for the purpose of preserving either family history or local community history. But oral history could potentially engage a much broader audience made up of producers and consumers. Not only can people easily record oral histories themselves, but the ability to listen to audio pretty much anywhere means text isn’t the only way to access oral histories.
For class, we recently listened to I Can Almost See the Lights of Home. Beautifully constructed—somewhere between documentary and sound art—the piece describes life in Harlan County, Kentucky. Even so, we learned it wasn’t widely heard because, at the time it was produced, there was no easy way to download and listen to a long-form piece. As someone who frequently traverses the entire length of Manhattan on the A train, I can imagine half the people in the train car would listen to this if it were available as a podcast.
OHMA is interested in pushing the boundaries of what oral history can do, as indicated by the diversity of interests and expertise in this year’s cohort, which includes a former book publisher, a journalist, and a social worker in a methadone clinic, to name a few. We all come with different goals and the program encourages us to take oral history in any direction that interests us. One year, a student’s thesis combined oral history and advocacy through the creation of Groundswell, a movement for social justice oral history projects.
Oral history deserves to be shared.
In keeping with the progressive and outward-facing nature of OHMA, we have begun to focus on strengthening our blog, interfacing with broader uses of storytelling and diving into oral history’s relationship with other disciplines. To this end, I’ve started two series: a bi-weekly roundup of interesting projects I’ve found that involve oral history and a series of OHMA alumni profiles. Both demonstrate the range of oral history’s applications. Whether it’s looking at how someone used oral histories from the Ellis Island Oral History Project to create a song or finding Spock’s life history interview on the Yiddish Book Oral History Project, people are able to see the value of oral history as a field of study and oral historians themselves can see some of the many different applications of their work.
In addition to my work, the OHMA blog invites students and community members to reflect on oral history workshops or events they attended as a way of extending our work beyond people who are physically in New York City. We encourage partners to share new developments or events in the field with our readership.
Oral history deserves to be shared. I think most of us who do oral history can agree that what we do is valuable to the wider public. After partnering with the Tenement Museum and discovering the complete lack of African Americans in the historical record of the Lower East Side, I chose to do my thesis on the predominantly African-American community of St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church. By making clips of my interviews easily accessible online, people will be able to see that there has been a vibrant African American community that contributed to the larger community of the Lower East Side, despite its small size.
I hope that the outward focus of OHMA’s blog encourages readers to think about larger audiences and different forms of oral history. Mary Marshall Clark, director of the Center for Oral History Research, says, “The great strength of oral history is its ability to record memories in a way that honors the dignity and integrity of ordinary people.” As oral historians, we have the responsibility to not just record these histories, but to ensure that ordinary people—not just researchers and academics—have the ability to be enriched by oral history too.
Image Credit: “OHMA students performing oral histories in public with the Sankofa Project” by Amy Starecheski. Photo used with permission.