Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Value of Oral History

Last weekend, I attended a program offered by the New Hampshire Humanities Council at the Hopkinton Public Library. Oral historian and storyteller Jo Radner spent the day teaching us about oral history projects and offering tips for conducting our own. The information  she gave was useful and interesting, while she walked us through exercises that made a lasting impression to improve our planning and interviewing skills.  Radner showed a true love for her work and her passion for the subject illuminated the value of oral history. I jotted down little pearls of wisdom about the value of oral history to share.

via @archivesinfo on Twitter - January 10, 2015
"The shortest distance between two people is a story." hopkinton public library

"Tell me your story"
While I generally work with archives and other objects to showcase the stories of individuals, storytelling offers another dimension that cannot be captured in a visual or text based medium. While seeing a picture helps one put a face to words on paper, hearing a voice adds another dimension to individual personal narratives.

"The voice comes from breath and the breath comes from life."
My high school library is currently collaborating with our local historical society and public library to showcase our school building's 50th anniversary. I am working to document our history in multiple formats including collecting archives and documenting experiences through photos and a journaling project. This spring, a program featuring interviews between students, alums, teachers and former faculty will become an important feature or our celebrations.

"[An oral historian] is a kind of midwife, offering a stimulus for those being interviewed to discover meaning in their own lives."

Our oral history project will help connect generations of our community through documentation, but also through real life experience. The interview process will provide a forum for people of different ages to communicate and will allow those who have lost touch with our community to reconnect. Oral history is more than a means of documentation and expression, it is a way to strengthen ties between people. It is a way to gather around common people, places and things; to share stories that promote commonalities while honoring individualism.

"When someone tells you a story they are giving you a gift. They are trusting you with their story."
The workshop has given me additional tools to train students. As interviewers, students will learn to help others share their stories and convince alums that each has a story to tell.  Last year, we interviewed three former alums informally. Students asked question about classes, dress, and past culture. Alums were reluctant to share at first, saying things such as, "I don't really have much to say" or "I don't think you want to hear about my life... It's not all that interesting." Yet, once students showed real interest through follow up questions, those sharing their experiences opened up to us.

History at its core is stories about the past. Young people want to hear the experiences of others when they are shared one-on-one. Students are eager to feel connections to older generations that traveled through the same halls we walk each day once they make an initial connection.  Similarly, older generations will be interested to hear from our students. I see value in prompting older people to try interviewing us. Oral history offers a means of empowerment by breaking down barriers and helping people realize that their lives have meaning that might not be immediately apparent to them. I learned that in the end, the value of oral history is embodied in a simple invitation to tell us a story.

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