Holyoke's Memory Book: Training Oral Historians

When people talk about their lives, people lie sometimes, forget a little, exaggerate, become confused, get things wrong, yet they are revealing truths…the guiding principle for [life histories] would be that all autobiographical memory is true: it is up to the interpreter to discover in which sense, and for what purpose.” (Personal Narratives Group,eds., Interpreting Women’s Lives: Feminist Theory and Personal Narratives, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1989, pp. 261, 197.)

Wistariahurst’s past successes with oral history projects abound. In 2000, the Mass Humanities funded an oral history collection project to document the lives of the Skinner Family servants. More recently, the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts awarded Wistariahurst Museum $25,000 for the completion of a project involving inter-generational and multi-ethnic oral histories with Loomis Communities and the Greater Holyoke Boys and Girls Club, entitled Bridging Generations: Shared Stories. In collaboration with One Book Holyoke efforts, Wistariahurst and Enchanted Circle Theater trained students from the CARE Center on how to conduct oral histories. The students then interviewed farmers from Nuestras Raices. However, in an effort to create a community with the ability to sustain oral history collection, Wistariahurst has embarked on a new project.

In 2008 Wistariahurst Museum received a grant from the Mass Humanities for a new oral history initiative called Holyoke’s Memory Book that will include a training session with local scholars on how to conduct oral history interviews; a library of oral history texts; trainees collecting digital oral histories from local institutions; oral history opportunities for classrooms; and access to these oral histories via the museum website and in a local repository.

Wistariahurst’s website hosts a series of on-line exhibits, to which oral history transcriptions and short mp3s of oral history interviews will be added where appropriate. Holyoke’s Memory Book is an online collection of multi-media pieces of Holyoke’s history. Along with an existing virtual tour of the city, an album of historic photographs and transcribed oral histories from the 1970s and 1980s, we are working toward creating a section for newly captured oral histories on the museum’s website as well as gathering photographs.

Oral history redirects our attention to the overlooked people in history. It can tell us not only about historical events, but the meaning those events had in people’s lives. For years, Wistariahurst has focused on the people associated with the Skinner Family, their servants and others who came in contact with the elite family. However, “the forgotten [people] have stories that ought to be preserved.” Our local communities must create programs to gather and preserve the accounts of ordinary people before it is too late, for “ordinary people built the world with trillions of acts of obscure heroism lost to common memory.” (Zoellner, Tom, Homemade Biography How to collect, record and tell the life story of someone you love, St. Martin’s Griffin, New York, 2007).

Wistariahurst, with the exquisite and enthusiastic help of a UMass Public History Graduate Student, Laura Miller, has been training oral historians from the community since November 2008. The introduction panel, which was also open to the public, featured Julia Sandy-Bailey of the Valley Women’s History Collaborative, Theodore Belsky, Professor Emeritus and founder of American International College’s Oral History Collection and Justin Shatwell of Yankee Magazine. Each shared stories of their professional careers as oral historians and addressed the following questions: How do you prepare for an oral history interview? What tips do you have for formulating questions and pursuing interesting topics raised by the interviewee? How does your profession influence the way that you approach oral history and what you take away from it? What is the most important piece of advice that you could give to an oral historian?

Oral historians involved in our project will learn the value of oral history, interview methodologies, ethics, transcription methodology, issues of memory, creating a dialogue with elders, and techniques for sharing history. They will review scholarly articles by authors including Carol Kammen, Studs Terkel, Alessandro Portelli; and they will read selections of the following books for oral historians in training and educators:

Online resources include:

Newly trained oral historians will begin interviewing elders at the Soldier’s Home, the Holyoke Council on Aging and the Loomis Communities, a retirement community in Holyoke, during the seven-month training sessions. We expect to generate information on ethnic or cultural practices, family life, war experiences, family relationships, the depression, work culture and general life lessons. It is our hope that issues regarding interviewing best practices will come up and the oral historians can use each other as a sounding board.

Once trained and having completed oral history interviews of their own, the oral historians will work with local public school teachers, educating their students on how to conduct oral histories and why it is important to preserve them. Each classroom will have an Oral History Classroom Kit that includes digital voice recorders, microphones, introductory texts, and sample questions developed by the oral historians.

Products from the oral history component of Holyoke’s Memory Book include raw data cds of all interviews to be stored at Wistariahurst Museum, raw data cds of interviews for all participants, raw data cds at educational institutions, transcriptions of interviews, public radio spots incorporating mp3s from interviews, and mp3s and transcriptions available online at the Wistariahurst Museum website, Holyoke’s Memory Book.

By training community members to conduct and preserve oral histories, we are encouraging the awareness of the need of preservation of voices and stories and hope that these trainees will continue to engage in historic preservation, local history and oral history gathering, long after their work with the Holyoke Memory Book project is finished.

At this time, our oral historians, who come from a wide variety of backgrounds, have chosen to interview local community members, both known and unknown. Their chosen topics include: general Holyoke history and personal experiences, the history of family owned restaurants, social history, youths’ visions for Holyoke, and what makes people leave and come back to a community like Holyoke.

It is our hope that the oral historians who are participating in this project will respond to this blog with their thoughts about the process so far. This is a learning process, and we hope that anyone who has experience can add to this growing knowledge.

Author: Kate Navarra Thibodeau

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