Saturday, March 9, 2013

Oral History Projects in the Works

I have been increasingly drawn of late into the realm of oral history. My understanding of this particular branch of the great tree of history was, until recently I should admit, fairly simplistic, and based around the fact that from being a child my father recounted to me often tales of past things and events in our neighborhood. Born in 1925 he grew up in a rural farming society not too far different from the farm life of 1875 or in many ways even 1825 – the local shoddy mill manufacturing textiles, the one-room schoolhouse, the pump-handle well and the outhouse, horses not for dressage but for a transportation and to pull farm machinery – I think he was really struck by how much things had changed. He would recall for me the arrival of the first electric lights to the neighborhood; driving on the first tarmac road in the area down by the old Charlestown Naval Air Station; “riding the rails” of the Wood River Branch Railroad to the village of Hope Valley. By the time I came along in the mid-sixties, the vestiges of this old rural way of life were still present but were fading. The thing I remember most about it was the constant interaction with our handful of neighbors in a variety of farm projects that seemed to me never-ending. But by the time I was finishing high school that way of life was ending. Between the dying-off of the local neighborhood patriarchs and the building boom of the 1980s that saw land values skyrocket – land that I remember selling for a few hundred dollars an acre (and was rarely purchased) now sold for tens of thousands of dollars – the ways of the old neighborhood disappeared. Neighbors grew far too numerous to keep track of, and most of them didn’t care to wave back or stop their cars and chat anyway. During the 1980s and ‘90s I often thought I should make a project of photographing all the old barns in South County as they fell increasingly into disrepair and began to collapse upon themselves. At the time, my father (pictured below, at age 78) could recount who had once owned each farm, what their barns were used for, whether he had ever any occasion to go there, and when and why the farm went out of business.


In hindsight, I wish now that I had methodically recorded more of my father’s tales of the early and mid-twentieth century when he (and I) were younger – he will be 88 in less than two weeks. I did videotape him talking to me about local mills, businesses and railroads a few years back. We explored several locales as he recounted the events at each, but the days of his clambering over stone walls or even taking a modest walk over slightly uneven ground are, unfortunately, behind him now. I still have the videotapes, but never thought to transcribe them or have him sign a release – we both figured that his agreement to participate and be recorded for the purposes of posterity implied his permission to be used by me as a historical source. But the problem is, as most readers will agree, that life is very busy. To make time for a 'low-priority' task (i.e., to sit down and record my father’s recollections of the past) has taken a back seat to more pressing matters of the everyday (i.e., teaching, taking courses for re-certification, several summers researching and then writing a master’s thesis, maintaining a household, becoming a husband and a parent) – somehow years pile up and a more thorough recording of the oral history of my father’s life will probably not get much further than what we have already managed to accomplish.


                             Grandpa with grandson Ian, c. 2002 -- both are about the same height now

Realization of this missed opportunity and a more recent encounter with the World War II Foundation has gotten me to reconsider the urgency of the oral history mission. Back in December, I went to a Teaching World War II workshop at the Rhode Island Historical Society called "D-Day: The Price of Freedom." The workshop, led by Tim Gray of the WWII Foundation, featured a video by the same name. During the introduction, Gray explained how he got involved in the project, and the importance of the work he is doing. Beginning with a trip to France that included a visit to Normandy’s American cemetery, Gray wondered how many Rhode Islanders had fought and died in the conflict (99 men are interred there, actually). Upon his return to the states, he began researching the answer to his questions, work that eventually led him to begin interviewing local veterans of the Normandy invasion. This effort culminated in the documentary movie D-Day: The Price of Freedom, where he filmed the return of several Rhode Island veterans to the beaches of Normandy sixty years after the invasion. He then explained why he founded the World War II Foundation as a result. The last American World War I veteran, Frank Buckles, died in 2011. In the past decade, over 1000 World War II veterans have died each day in the United States; in a few years they too, like the veterans of World War I, will be all gone. Gray has made it his mission to preserve as much of this living history as he possibly can in the time that is left. I have recently come across similar concerns about recording the stories of the women who helped build the American war machine that defeated Hitler, or who took part in the fight for contraceptives and birth control, or in the civil rights movement, or Vietnam protests…there seems to be a growing awareness that events that once seemed to be part of the recent past are quickly receding into “history,” a past that will soon be out of reach of the first-hand account and oral history.

As I started working in the Western Rhode Island Civic Historical Society Archive last summer, I first began thinking about establishing an oral history project there. Tim Gray’s project convinced me that there is a need for such work to be done, and I began in earnest to look into the logistics of putting together a Western Rhode Island Oral History Project. Last month I had the opportunity to visit an oral history project that has been in operation since the early 2000s - The Matunuck Oral History Project, which published its first volume of oral history in 2006. Sandy McCaw (a fellow traveler at the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society and volunteer coordinator of the Willow Dell Historical Society’s Matunuck Oral History Project) saw to it that I was invited to "A Celebration of the publication of Volume VI of the Willow Dell Historical Association's Matunuck Oral History Project." The celebration, held at the Matunuck Land Trust Barn, featured nostalgic reminisces by long-time Matunuck residents amidst concerns over properties lost to the recent hurricane and winter storm damage and erosion, as well as offering the latest volume of the Matunuck Oral History series. Volume IV, Matunuck: Not just a place but a state of mind gathers “fifteen interviews featuring the historic houses and special places of Matunuck.” The introduction is written by Barbara Hale Davis, and features oil paintings of Matunuck houses by Anna Richards Brewster, Frank Convers Mathewson, and her great-grandfather Edward Everett Hale. From there the project tells the highlights of a number of South Kingstown locales, such as Roy Carpenters Beach (as related by resident Kevin McCloskey) or Point Judith Pond (by URI oceanography professor Prentice Stout and hiswife Patricia). Replete with many color and black and white images, the interviews have all been transformed into narrative accounts. Much of the stories’ appeal would be of most interest to the local consumers of Matunuck history, but there is enough relevance made to the larger history of South Kingstown, Rhode Island, and the United States to make the book interesting to non-locals as well.


I also had been trying to get in touch with someone (anyone) at the New England Oral History Association (NEOHA), but I was not having any luck. On my most recent attempt I was redirected to the Oral History Office at the University of Connecticut. From there, I made contact with Bruce Stave, professor of history at UConn and director of the UConn Oral History Office. I made an appointment to see him, which as it turned out, was to take place only three days after the celebration at the Matunuck Oral History Project. Dr. Stave is a fellow resident of Coventry, but of the Connecticut variety. (Coincidently, Coventry CT was also the home of Nathan Hale, Revolutionary War hero and the grand-uncle of the aforementioned Edward Everett Hale.) My meeting with Dr. Stave was very informative. He first explained why I was getting nowhere with contacting NEOHA – the organization is currently defunct and on hiatus. He gave me a number of resources (many of which can be found on the Stave Group website and a list books to read. He explained that oral history is a process that goes beyond simply finding someone old and asking them questions. He insisted that the oral historian should always have a project or a goal around which they organize their research, base their questions, and identify persons to interview. At the first interview, the interviewee should always sign a “consent to be interviewed” form, and the recordings made become the property both of the interviewer and the interviewee, who should get a copy of them as well to do with as they wish. The interviewer should transcribe the interview, and when finished they should meet again with the interviewee, who is given a copy which they can edit for content. The final edited transcript is then signed off on with a second consent from. At that point, the transcript becomes a historical source document which can from the basis of projects like the Matunuck Oral History series.

Dr. Stave and I then discussed what might be a viable project for me to begin for the Western Rhode Island Oral History Project. I related that one of my tasks as the archivist of the WRICHS is to help organize the Society’s past records and help recover the “institutional memory” of the Western Rhode Island Civic Historical Society. He had mentioned that one of the projects he undertook at the UConn Oral History Office was to interview the staff and members of the Connecticut Historical Society to create an oral history of that society that served a similar purpose. Given that there are a number of people with long memories of the WRICHS both in the community and serving on the WRICHS board, I decided that would become our first project. I mentioned my idea for an oral history project at the Society’s most recent planning meeting, and got the go-ahead to start putting together a planning “mini-grant” from the Rhode Island Council of the Humanities, which also provides funding for the Matunuck Oral History Project. For the time being the mini-grant program is on a “spring hiatus,” which gives me some time to do some research into what sort of equipment I should budget for.

Building on that idea, I intend to reach out to other Rhode Island historical societies, house museums, and historic districts and suggest they too create an oral history of their own organization, that they keep a copy, and the WRICHS keep a copy, as per Stanford University’s LOCKSS Program (Lots Of Copies Keep Stuff Safe). As part of the planning grant, I want to put together an oral history workshop and invite Dr. Stave and his oral history team to come out and talk to all interested parties about how to set up an oral history program. Eventually, a history of Rhode Island’s historical organizations and preservation efforts could emerge from such an effort.


Dr. Stave also asked me if I have ever used oral history in my teaching. I haven't, but he suggested it might be another good place to start. As mentioned in a previous blog post, my history department is developing a new research paper for the US History II course based on the idea of America’s “Grand Expectations” after World War II. I brought up the idea of incorporating oral history into the student’s research project in a recent department common planning meeting, and my suggestion was met with some enthusiasm. Where there may be some students whose buy-in to the research paper would be somewhat muted despite being able to choose their own topic, those same students might be more interested if they could choose rather than conducting extensive library research, to instead interview a relative, neighbor, or other local resident about their knowledge of how the student’s chosen topic or event affected the interviewer. The work of identifying a candidate to speak with, developing good open-ended questions, interviewing and then generating a transcription certainly qualifies as a research project. The final transcripts could also be cataloged in the school library and serve as a source of information for future research papers.

Currently I am reading some of the books that Dr. Stave recommended – Valerie Raleigh Yow’s second edition of Recording Oral History: A Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences (Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 2005) is an excellent how-to guide for designing interview questions, memory, recall, strategies for questioning, even words and phrasing to avoid when interviewing. Barbara W. Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan’s The Oral History Manual (Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 2002) provides an overview of the entire project: project planning, recording technology, budgeting, interviewing, and processing and care of oral history materials. I also took out from the library the second edition of Donald A. Ritchie’s Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003) covers much the same topics as the Ritchie book, but is longer and also has sections on teaching oral history and using oral history in the classroom. Before visiting Dr. Stave I had also taken out a copy of A Guide to Oral History and the Law by John A. Neuenschwander (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), which had some interesting case studies related to the legal considerations of oral history. Neuenschwander’s book also discusses online use of oral history and includes legal release agreements. Dr. Stave agreed it was an interesting book but said I shouldn't be too concerned about potential lawsuits. My take-away is that as long as the work is ethical and honest, and the double consent procedure is followed, there really shouldn't be any problem.

Finally, I bough a copy of Linda P. Wood’s Oral History Projects in Your Classroom (Carlisle: Oral History Association, 2001). Linda Wood was at one time the librarian at South Kingstown High School, and organized several oral history projects. Among those include “The Whole World Was Watching: An oral history of 1968,” In the Wake of '38, and What did you do in the war, Grandma?: An oral history of Rhode Island Women during World War II. On the Prentice Hall/Pearson site, Linda Wood has written an online Guide to Using Oral History. Here is an excerpt of her pedagogy for using oral history in the classroom:

One of the most important lessons students can learn from oral history is to see that individuals are part of the greater society and that the individual is shaped by society and, in turn, helps to shape society. They get a snapshot of another person's life as he or she interacts with events outside that life, and, in doing so, they learn how the individual reacts to the events, learns from them, and attempts to exert control over them. In every interview in every oral history project, the narrators explain what they saw, what they did, and what they thought about the things they were experiencing. Students listen and learn from these interviews. They learn that history is assembled from these human pieces, that no one piece is any less important than any other piece, and that they have a role in making sure the pieces are not lost.