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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.

OHR Presents Special Section on Oral History and COVID-19

OHR solicited essays on the implications of interviewing during and about COVID-19. We are excited to publish these online today, and in print in the upcoming issue.

By Janneken Smucker, Abigail Perkiss, and David Caruso

Back in April, which simultaneously feels like two days ago and two years ago, the OHR editorial team contemplated how the lockdown, social distancing, and pandemic would affect our field, including its methods and ethics. While confronting current events is typically not the strong suit of academic publishing—due to the slow pace of reflective writing, peer review, and production cycles—we nevertheless felt it imperative that the journal contribute to discussions of whether, when, and how to document COVID-19 and its myriad effects via oral history. We turned to colleagues who we knew were thinking hard about this topic, perhaps interviewing about the pandemic, perhaps choosing to wait. This selection of essays now serves as a snapshot in time, as the articles were completed in late May, prior to the killing of George Floyd, prior to the surge in COVID-19 cases through much of the South and Southwest, and prior to the intense ongoing debates about whether and how to re-open schools and universities.  Somehow, it is now September; in some ways we have adapted to the “new normal” of the pandemic era, and in many ways we have not. 

We encourage you to join the discussion of how oral history can help document our current crises. Let us know in the comments, or by pitching a guest post, how you are navigating oral history amid pandemic. In addition to these articles, we are pleased to share resources for oral history and COVID-19, drawn from the footnotes provided by our authors.  

We are grateful to our publisher, Taylor and Francis/ Routledge, for generously making this content, and all COVID-19 related content, free from paywalls. Follow the links in the table of contents below to the full articles. 

Editors’ Introduction
Abigail Perkiss, Janneken Smucker, and David Caruso

Behind the ‘Curve’: COVID-19, Infodemic, and Oral History
Stephen Sloan

First, Do No Harm: Tread Carefully Where Oral History, Trauma, and Current Catastrophes Intersect
Jennifer Cramer

Cultivating Support while Venturing into Interviewing During COVID-19
Anna Kaplan

Socially Engaged Oral History Pedagogy Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic
Anna Lee and Kimberly Springer

The COVID-19 Oral History Project: Some Preliminary Notes from the Field
Jason Kelly

Journalism, COVID-19, and the Opportunity for Oral History
Evan Faulkenbury

Leading in the Time of Corona
Allison Tracy-Taylor   

Featured image: Stewart and Holmes Wholesale Drug Co. employees on 3rd Avenue during the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic. (University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, SOC0394).                                                                                                          

5 Questions About Folksongs of Another America

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, James P. Leary discusses his book Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937-1946

Read Bud Kliment’s full review here and in the forthcoming issue 48.2 of Oral History Review

What’s it about and why does it matter?

From 1937 through 1946 Sidney Robertson, Alan Lomax, and Helene Stratman-Thomas—fieldworkers for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress—recorded roughly 2000 songs and tunes in more than twenty-five languages from performers in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin: Ojibwe fiddlers, Swiss yodelers, Croatian tamburitzans, Norwegian psalmodikon quartets, Oneida hymn-singers, Irish lumberjack balladeers, Welsh choruses, Bohemian brass bands, Ho-Chunk hand drummers, and much more. Yet for seven decades only the songs in English were published, implicitly favoring a monolingual, mono-cultural false impression over a decidedly plural reality. Folksongs of Another America reveals at last the long-hidden diversity and depth of the Upper Midwest’s folk musical traditions through digitally restored sound recordings and film footage; still photographs; transcribed, translated, and annotated lyrics; and glimpses of performers’ lives and communities. At once a restoration and a critique, this print/media production not only testifies to the Upper Midwest’s historical contributions to America’s folk cultural legacy, but also reassesses prevailing conceptions of American folk music and song.

How does oral history contribute to your book?

I’m a folklorist who was born and raised in a small northwestern Wisconsin farming, logging, and resort community wherein peoples of varied Native and European descent have long intermingled. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I encountered a remarkable range of local musical traditions through live radio, wedding dances, powwows, taverns, and dance halls. In the 1970s, struck by the complicated ways in which my neighbors sustained, adapted, combined, and created cultural traditions within regional and historical contexts, I began conducting archival research, ethnography, and tape-recorded interviews. The musicians whose repertoires and reminiscences I documented were all deeply indebted to performers from prior generations. Several of them had even been recorded by Library of Congress fieldworkers during the 1937-1946 span, while others either witnessed those sessions or knew the performers. Their powerful experiences and oral testimony inspired more interviews and related research incrementally resulting in Folksongs of Another America.     

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

Published historical sources regarding the life of an “ordinary” person typically reveal only the few spare facts found in public records and local newspapers. Occasionally the latter might report that a person loved singing old songs or played for generations of wedding dances, but to learn more you must ask someone who knows. Since the mid-1970s I’ve had the pleasure of asking scores of venerable, veteran singers and musicians about their life histories or artistic autobiographies as performers. In 1989, seventy-six year old Sylvester Romel—from whom Alan Lomax recorded a song in 1938 about a Polish immigrant mill worker’s misfortunes—told me that he’d learned the song from his mother, Anna Losinski Romel, while they were milking cows: “She was a good singer. She did know, oh, about a hundred songs. And not from papers, she had that in her head. Just like we did . . . That’s the only way.” Such first-hand accounts are the only way to acquire those missing folk musical details, and collectively Syl Romel and kindred performers, through eloquent interviews, provided the small essential fragments from which I was able to form a big regional picture.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

Bud Kliment’s OHR review of my book sagely calls attention to the close relationship between folksong and life history recordings that emerged in the 1930s through the Works Progress Administration, especially the Federal Writers’ Project. The overarching goal of Depression-era songcatchers and oral historians was to document America’s many voices through the experiences of diverse working people expressed in their songs, tunes, stories, and vernacular observations. My efforts draw on a series of interviews augmented by contemporary digital tools—including sound restoration, genealogical databases, and newspaper search engines—to extend and illuminate nearly forgotten oral historical evidence establishing the enduring contributions of Indigenous and immigrant performers to American life and culture.

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

When Folksongs of Another America was published, I was heartened by many thoughtful reviews, including one from the Los Angeles Times confessing astonishment at the English, French Canadian, German, Irish, Norwegian, Ojibwe, Swedish, Swiss, and other strands suffusing the repertoires of woods workers: “Who knew that the songs of Wisconsin lumberjacks were as odd and singular as the stuff being made in Appalachia or the Mississippi delta?” As a hardcore populist, pluralist, and progressive from the Upper Midwest, I want readers to know that this region is as varied and worthy of attention as any other, and its essence can be found in the lives, words, and songs of its people.

5 Questions About Everybody’s Problem: The War on Property in Eastern North Carolina

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, Karen Hawkins discusses her book Everybody’s Problem: The War on Poverty in Eastern North Carolina.

Read Thomas Saylor’s review here and in issue 47.2 of OHR

What’s it about and why does it matter?

Everybody’s Problem details the bold and largely successful efforts of white and Black leaders in predominately rural Eastern North Carolina to work together for the first time to address the main causes of poverty in their community during the 1960s and 1970s. Despite early resistance from local conservatives (including the KKK) as well as increasingly restrictive federal guidelines, their efforts spanned the period before, during, and after President Johnson’s national War on Poverty. Centered in Craven County, few antipoverty programs in the nation lasted so long or witnessed the level of local cooperation as seen there. I argue that this was made possible by the large presence and influence of moderates in the community to keep the program alive out of a shared commitment to provide more economic opportunity (namely well-paying jobs) for the most disadvantaged residents, which they saw as improving the area’s economic strength for all. By the early 1980s, Craven County was described as the “jewel of the East” in part due to the growth of high-skilled jobs that employed historic numbers of whites and Blacks alike. Although this is a mostly local history, Craven County’s size, demographics and preference for local control were then and now far from unique in the nation and, therefore, can add much to our understanding of how local people of different backgrounds and even preferred methods can meet and cooperate to help address issues of poverty and inequity in their communities out of a shared interest. Arguably, the lessons of the book have only become more relevant today as both local communities and the nation as a whole have experienced growing and never-before-seen divides, mistrust, and isolation that tend to hamstring discussion, cooperation, and solutions to social and economic issues.


How does oral history contribute to your book?

The book relies on several oral history collections including the New Bern Oral History Project (catalogued by UNC-Chapel Hill), interviews of local people and federal officials (from the Office of Economic Opportunity) conducted by North Carolina Fund staff who provided more hands-on guidance and private funding to the Craven County anti-poverty program (catalogued by UNC-Chapel Hill), and the Duke University Behind the Veil Oral History Project. I also conducted oral history interviews with eleven members of the Craven County community with regard to their involvement in the local anti-poverty program and/or the concurrent local civil rights movement.

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

Above all, I really appreciated how the oral history interviews allowed me to understand and have access to the personal feelings and relationships between so many local community members (from businessmen to civil rights leaders to housewives) as well to see how one’s view could change from one interview to a subsequent one a few months later based on the context. The North Carolina Fund was perhaps most helpful in that its staff conducted multiple interviews with individuals both for and against the anti-poverty program during the War on Poverty. With all the oral history collections, I was also able to learn and understand more about the day-to-day challenges and inner-workings of the local anti-poverty program and the general culture and philosophy of leadership in Craven County that could not be found in any other sources including local newspaper articles.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

They may be interested in how the interviews were used in the book as well as the location of a wide number of oral histories among a diverse group of white and Black North Carolinians who share their personal views on and experiences with race, poverty, and politics during the highly contentious and changing 1960s and 1970s.

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

Positive and lasting change, whether to address the causes of poverty or another issue, occurs most successfully when individuals of goodwill from a representative variety of backgrounds, views, experiences, and status are invited to participate and can see the benefits that change will have for themselves and their fellow citizens. 

5 Questions About Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West

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, Sarah Alisabeth Fox discusses Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West. 

Read Holly Werner-Thomas’ review of Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West online and in issue 47.2 of OHR. 

What’s it about and why does it matter?

Downwind is the story of ordinary people in the southwestern United States who came to realize their communities were impacted by radiation exposure during the Cold War. This exposure took many forms; my book is concerned primarily with atmospheric nuclear weapons testing in Nevada and the uranium industry which developed in the Four Corners region to support nuclear weapons development. The Indigenous and settler residents of this region couldn’t see, smell, or taste radiological contamination as it entered their food supply, their water, and their communities, but many of them did observe the towering clouds of nuclear tests and the material changes uranium mining imposed on familiar landscapes. When illnesses and deformities began to appear in livestock and wildlife, then in human populations, many locals began to wonder about possible linkages to the uranium industry or nuclear testing. Some began listing and mapping the illnesses and losses they observed in their families, workplaces, and neighborhoods, and exchanging information with friends and neighbors. Toxic exposure is difficult to prove; years may pass between exposure and the emergence of physical symptoms, a phenomenon Rob Nixon has called “slow violence.” These people were attempting to make slow violence visible. Their observations coalesced in practices of popular epidemiology, which utilized local and experiential knowledge to document patterns of illness and environmental change that eluded formally trained scientists and technicians. Individually, these stories are frequently discounted as “anecdotal” evidence. Considered together, in conversation with other forms of archival and scientific evidence, they provide ample documentation of a devastating betrayal of people and places in the name of national security and technological development.

As knowledge-holders in these communities age and succumb to illnesses most likely related to radiation exposure, this history is beginning to recede from people’s awareness. Many of the individuals I interviewed for my book have since passed away. The book is no replacement for their stories, but hopefully it serves to amplify them, particularly given the resurgent interest in uranium extraction, nuclear power, and nuclear weapons development. Numerous radiologically contaminated Cold War sites continue to pose health risks across the western United States (and the rest of the world), and much is still unknown about the long-term health implications of low-level radiation exposure for people in these communities and their descendants. The federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Program is scheduled to sunset in 2022, but we still have a long way to go to achieve justice for these communities, deemed national sacrifices in the pursuit of U.S. nuclear hegemony. This is particularly true for Indigenous communities like the Western Shoshone, the Navajo Nation, the Southern Paiute, and New Mexico’s Pueblo nations, who are still dealing with the violence of displacement, treaty violations, and ongoing contamination related to nuclear development.

How does oral history contribute to your book?

Oral history methods and content are fundamental to Downwind, but I want to clarify, the book isn’t an oral history collection, per se. It is a book that relies on oral history evidence. Excellent oral history collections do exist for anyone who is interested in reading, writing about, or teaching those important records. I recommend the Navajo Uranium Miner Oral History and Photography Project’s Memories Come to Us in the Rain and the Wind (Red Sun Press, 1997), Carole Gallagher’s American Ground Zero (MIT Press, 1993), Trisha Pritikin’s The Hanford Plaintiffs: Voices from the Fight for Atomic Justice (University Press of Kansas, 2020), and the University of Utah Marriott Library Downwinders Archive online oral history collection, which is growing all the time.

When I began research for this project in 2005, I was hoping to document the way people living downwind of the Nevada Proving Ground (today, the Nevada National Security Site) developed an understanding of how their own lives, communities, and foodsheds were impacted by nuclear tests in their region. Carole Gallagher’s book was an incredible starting place: I spent a lot of time poring over the oral histories she c

ollected in the late 1980s to get an initial sense of how people in the region conceptualized and relayed this history. I also started gathering archival records that contained first-person testimony from downwinders, including letters to elected officials, legal and congressional testimony and newspaper articles spanning the 1950s – 1990s. Before I conducted my own interviews, I spent time analyzing these printed downwinder accounts, utilizing folklore methodologies to map prevalent themes, motifs, phrasings, and narrative arcs. I knew that downwinder stories were composed of more than individual memories and experiences; they also incorporated community knowledge, media revelations, and research that many of these individuals undertook years after the events they were describing. Folkloric analysis helped me to identify and delineate patterns, shared memories, and research-based knowledge.

When I began conducting my own oral history interviews, I faced several challenges. Many of the downwinders whose stories and testimony I had been studying had already passed away, and I surmised that many of the downwinder storytellers who remained might be weary of relating such painful stories. With that concern in mind, I began my oral history work by reaching out to some of the more public-facing downwinder activists. Once I had developed relationships and trust, these individuals graciously began connecting me to friends and fellow activists across the region. I utilized the same approach to gathering oral histories on uranium exposure. This slow, trust-based networking continued for years, and I still conduct oral history interviews related to radiation exposure today, six years after the book’s publication and 15 years after my work on this topic began.

Oral history interviews helped me to map a major historical episode as it played out across environments, communities, families, industries, and decades. The structure of Downwind derives from the dominant themes that surfaced in the oral histories I studied and gathered. The voices and stories from these interviews help readers to grapple with the local, human scale of historical episodes like the Cold War and political issues like nuclear weapons proliferation that are usually discussed in abstract national or global terms.

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

I love oral history as a methodology for its efficacy in mapping the contours of lived experience and relationships with place and community. As many educators, health professionals, and social scientists have argued, “people are experts on their own lives,” and I’m really interested in the ways that expertise is developed, organized, and relayed.

As many… have argued, “people are experts on their own lives,” and I’m really interested in the ways that expertise is developed, organized, and relayed.

Using oral history as a methodology in history, environmental studies, and public health research brings community expertise into academic conversations in ways that really shift the discussion. It’s simply not possible for academic researchers to apprehend the full picture of a complex event like nuclear weapons testing or uranium mining on their own. We need the stories of people local to that event to understand how it came to shape places, bodies, and perspectives at the scale of ordinary lives.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

I think fellow oral historians will be interested in the book’s interdisciplinary approach, which engages oral history with folklore, archival research, and environmental studies methodologies in order to investigate questions of community memory, social movement formation, environmental change, and practices of popular and professional epidemiology. Methodological questions aside, this is a little-known and really important history that has been kept alive by ordinary people’s resilience and willingness to tell their stories, and I hope other oral historians are drawn to it for this reason also.

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

I’ll paraphrase a line from the book. All wars, no matter how abstract, “cold,” or distant they may seem, happen in places where people live, grow food, and raise children, and the effects of those wars linger in the soil, the bodies, and the memories of those who survive. As a society we need to reckon with this slow violence, and attend to the expertise of those who have experienced it firsthand.

5 Questions About: Family Portraits in Global Perspectives

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, Soledad Quartucci discusses her book Family Portraits in Global Perspectives: An Oral History Collection.

Read Michael Tomaselli’s review of Family Portraits in Global Perspectives online and in issue 47.2 of OHR.

What’s it about and why does it matter?

This book is a historical and family treasure. It was produced by first year students attending an international university in Southern California. As a historian and writing instructor, I wanted to create the type of assignment they would embrace with passion and with heart. I wanted them to fall in love with writing by writing with a personal purpose: interviewing an elder in their family and writing a family portrait of their life.

The student authors themselves offered the best evidence to why the book matters:

“In my writing 101 class, my professor assigned us to write a Family Oral History. I am glad she did because I had the wonderful opportunity to learn more about my African-American side. Through this oral history I got the chance to learn more about my father.” – Taylor H. on her father’s upbringing in the segregated South.

“I hope this oral history gives the reader at least some courage when you encounter difficulties. Without my uncle’s difficulties in life, I would have never known about this wonderful school, much less have traveled to study here. Moreover, I would have not had the chance to write about my uncle’s story and appreciate what my family has done before and even today. This is definitely the first paper I wrote for the real purpose of writing instead of just trying to make it perfect and hand it in on time. In order to let my siblings and my cousins learn about our wonderful grandparents and uncle, I have translated this oral history, and plan on expanding it next summer in Taiwan. Like it did for me, I hope you, too, are encouraged by my uncle’s life!” – Yu An Ma.

“I had always heard about the bombing of Hiroshima through the perspective of my great aunt, my grandpa’s little sister, who experienced it, but interviewing my grandfather made me realize the whole different kind of hardship that he went through, returning to his home in Hiroshima to find nothing and no one there, his search for his family alone, and having to work to provide for them. I think those experiences shaped who he is today, a humble, honest, hard-working, and confident man who is grateful for everything he has. His story, in a sense, made me reexamine my life, taking note of all the things I take for granted. My grandfather continues to encourage me to pursue what I love and to enjoy what I have, and I hope that sharing his story will be an inspiration for others to do the same.” – Ellie T.

“The war changed everything in my grandmother’s life. I could not imagine how many times she cried in her life. Before this oral history, my grandmother never mentioned a word about her suffering or about the war; instead, she always made me laugh with her funny stories during my youth. The interview was beyond my expectation about her sorrow. I cannot forget how her voice shuddered. I felt she did not like to recall those sad memories.” – Kenichi O.

“The interview took about two and a half hours because my grandma pauses to think a lot. I decided to interview her in particular because she had never shared her history with us, and she never exaggerates her stories. I thought I could get a real and pure image of life in Japan during the WWII period. Through this interview and Oral History assignment I was able to not only document and share an account of WWII that hasn’t been told, but also deepen our relationship as children of the Kurosaki family. I also greatly appreciate how I was able to understand and meet my grandpa who passed away before I could retain my memory. It is true that those who have suffered the most will become the happiest, because my grandma is living proof.” – Nobuko M.

“When I heard about this oral history project from my writing professor, the person who came up to my mind was my grandmother. It was because I did not know anything about her life before I was born although she is the closest to me among my grandparents. I didn’t even know her age! So I decided to interview my grandmother, my mother’s mother, and focus on her childhood. When I told this to my mother, she said, ‘You’re gonna interview your grandma? Hmm…you may not even be able to write 10 pages because her life has been so simple and normal.’ What my grandmother shared left both of us shocked. I am thankful for being given such an opportunity to connect with her more deeply.” – Nobuko N. 

“This oral history contains my grandmother’s story, my great-grandmother’s story, and my nation’s story; this is the Korean history of tears. As a Korean, I feel a strong responsibility for recording this history for my Korea. I will remember what happened, how people felt, how painful this history is, and what I need to do as a Korean-descendant.” – Yeji P.

“I have always known my Yaya to be a strong person. Previously, I had vaguely been aware of Yaya’s rough childhood, and ever since I can remember, I have always heard her stories of how she came to America all by herself at such a young age to marry a man she had never met. Nevertheless, this project was filled with so many jaw-dropping moments, and I learned things and stories that I had never known or been told about. I think I fully understand now what a hard life my Yaya had, but she persevered.” – Zoe, W.

How does oral history contribute to your book?

My intentions for the oral history project were multiple. I hoped to broaden students’ understanding of the past and encourage them to rethink the concept of historical actors. The assignment was intended to draw students closer to their narrators and inspire a deeper appreciation of their elders’ cultural heritage. As an instructor, I conceptualized the assignment as an ideal one to challenge students as writers, researchers, and as people. Oral history projects produce much better reads than college papers. This assignment engaged students personally.  The oral histories included in the collection offer a space from which to empathize with the everyday realities of the previous generations, and the many resourceful ways in which our ancestors lived their lives.

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

For my final assignment in Writing 101, I assign an oral history project. I ask students to conduct a life and family history interview with an older relative or someone who has lived long enough to have witnessed many historical changes. I encourage students to reflect on the significance of family history and consider their elder’s life within the broader context of national and transnational history. Family Portraits is the product of a collective endeavor as students worked closely with relatives, elders, and family friends from different generations and cultures to create a portrait of their narrators’ lives.

Writing family history is one of the most rewarding and meaningful ways to chronicle memories that too often leave the earth with their owner. Most of us can relate to experiencing regret for not having had one last conversation with an elder to learn more about their lives.  Oral history projects allow students to uncover a generational layer to their past. In recording these stories, student writers contribute to the humanizing and expanding of the historical record and develop a deep appreciation and humility for the hardships overcome in their lineage.

The process of going through a life-interview creates unique emotional legacies. oral histories help the younger generation to learn about their past, and to find their place in the continuity of their family’s journey. The distance between history and personal experience is shortened through oral histories. Serving as a bridge, oral history links private and public history making room for nuanced recollections of the past.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

If you are an oral historian and an instructor, the collection of oral histories here will remind you of why you love the field and the methodology so much. The process of conducting an oral history project as special as a family history is a journey into uncovering the true meaning of family heritage, providing clues for why we are the way we are.

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

Each story in this book will take a piece of your heart. You will be immersed into windows of a life, so richly depicted and tenderly recalled, you’ll feel you are in the fields of Mexico, in WWII Japan, in Greece, in the segregated South. Each story is a family treasure written and uncovered by first year students who were transformed as writers and as people by shocking conversations with elders they thought they knew well.

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