Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.

X

Executive Co-Director’s Column

By Kristine McCusker

 

Greetings from the co-directors who have spent the past two months representing the Oral History Association at various meetings, professional organizations and conferences nationally and internationally.

In April, Louis Kyriakoudes attended the American Council of Learned Societies in Philadelphia where he was able to meet other executive directors. Highlights of the meeting included sessions on leadership, data protection and most importantly, developing pro-active policies on harassment and other issues.

In May, he was a guest at the University of Ghent in Belgium to participate in a doctoral defense panel of international scholars. At the meeting, he was able to discuss oral history methods and work at the law school, where they are working on human rights abuses. He is hoping to develop a relationship with them.

In mid-May, Kris McCusker spent time with colleagues at the Organization of American Historians, talking about potential partnerships with them. We are happy to announce that the crack editorial team at the Oral History Review will be holding a workshop on publishing and oral history at the OAH conference in Philadelphia in 2019.

She also spent time at the National Council on Public History, visiting especially with Executive Director Stephanie Rowe, who had some great suggestions regarding the OHA and future growth.

In early June, she presented a paper at the International Country Music Conference, especially talking about the good work the OHA is doing and why popular music scholars need to be using oral history methodology. Then, she attended the Southern Association for Women Historians where she was able to visit with former OHA president and executive secretary Rebecca Sharpless.

Finally, Kris and intrepid Program Associate Faith Bagley will be visiting potential sites for the 2021 annual conference, checking out whether they are a good fit for our organization.

Please note: Major construction begins on our building July 17 and we will be without access to our phone from July 17 until Aug. 20. If you need to contact the executive office, emailing us is best at oha@oralhistory.org. We will be able to return phone calls, but won’t be able to answer them immediately. Thanks for your patience!

View All News Articles.

President’s Column

By Todd Moye

 

The OHA has a lean paid staff. They earn their paychecks many times over, but it’s also true that volunteers do the bulk of the OHA’s work, from planning our annual conference to setting its policies and long-term priorities. I’d like to highlight the work that one of our committees and one of our task forces are engaged in this year, and I invite you to put your own shoulder behind the wheel of the group that best fits your talents and interests.

The OHA’s Statement of Principles and Best Practices is our most important public-facing document. I have used it as the cornerstone of every oral history training I have ever led, as I know many of you have. I also know how often experienced oral historians have directed would-be oral historians to the document as a starting point. I couldn’t possibly calculate how many oral historians the document has educated, or how much better the practice of oral history in the U.S. is today as a result.

It’s important that the document reflect current best practices, which evolve more rapidly than ever in the digital age. To that end, Sarah Milligan and Troy Reeves have led a small team over the past several months to revise the document for the first time in nearly a decade. I have been impressed by the time and thought that the members of the task force have put into this, and I’m excited that they will be able to share the results of their work with you in Montreal.

I’m encouraging Council to think of ways to make the statement more of a living document, which would require the task force to convene more regularly. Stay tuned for developments on that front.

As the OHA grows, it’s up to all of us to ensure that it is a welcoming place for oral historians from all walks of life, and we all bear responsibility for making more opportunities available for oral historians from underrepresented groups. This is the explicit charge of the Diversity Committee, which for the past few years has been working with Council and the executive office to create an OHA-sponsored diversity fellowship.

When the fellowship is in place, it will employ a budding oral historian from an underrepresented community in an oral history program or archive for one year, thereby carving a path toward a career in oral history. In the future we want to scale this up to offer multiple fellowships each year. We’re nearly to the finish line with the first iteration of the fellowship, but we could use your help to get across.

Later this summer you will receive a call for volunteers on OHA committees and task forces. Please take some time to familiarize yourself with the committee descriptions and respond to the survey. It would be wonderful if your passions and skill set align with the work of the Diversity Committee, but if not, I’m confident that you will find another spot where your work would be valued.

View All June 2018 Newsletter Articles.

Oral History & Podcasting/Radio Storytelling

Molly Graham
Assistant Director
Oral History & Folklife Research, Inc.
June 2018

 

My first introduction to oral history was in the form of a 2001 radio story that aired on This American Life. (I feel like a lot of oral historians’ origin story begins this way.) Reporter Carl Marziali was telling the story of David Boder, a psychologist who escaped the Russian Civil War and came to the United States in 1919.  Boder returned to Europe in 1945 to record the first Holocaust testimonies, over a decade before we called the Holocaust the Holocaust.  Terms such as “death march” don’t appear in any of the 109 interviews recorded in a dozen different languages.  Names like Josef Mengele are mispronounced as “Wengele” in the recordings.  These interviews are so different from later Holocaust testimonies and memoirs that have been shaped by time and other survivor’s accounts.

At the time I heard this radio show, I thought I wanted to do for a living what Carl Marziali was doing – produce radio documentaries.  I didn’t know that I would also end up doing what David Boder did – recording life stories.  I went on study at the Salt Institute in Portland, Maine.  Here I learned how to produce radio documentaries – podcasts.  My education at Salt, much more than my graduate work in library and archives management, has informed my approach to doing oral history.  At Salt, we were taught how to be professional sound engineers, but also how to capture “felt life” from narrators, meaning the closest understanding of another person’s life experience.  I became embedded in a story for four months documenting the experience of two men who claim to be abducted by aliens in Maine’s Allagash Wilderness.  And my approach to interviewing Jack and Charlie has been the same for everyone I have interviewed since – veterans, activists, immigrants.  This is their version of their life.  I am the midwife to their life story.  I am there to guide it out and record it well.

Salt changed the trajectory of my life, helped shape my career and made me a good oral historian.  I have since urged every oral historian, colleague, and stranger on the street to attend this program or the Transom Storytelling workshops.  Because of Salt I get good tape and good content.  This has been my big push in the field of oral history – the quality of the recording is as important as the information contained within it.  Poor sound quality precludes access and use.  Oral historians need to adopt the standards of public radio – good equipment, mic placement, soundchecks, soft space, and NO extraneous interviewer noises (mm-hmm, yeah, etc.).  Interviews are easier to transcribe, excerpt, and share if recorded well.  It honors the story of the person you are interviewing if recorded warmly, closely and crisply.  It’s embarrassing to turn over a recording that sounds like it was recorded under the sea, in a wind tunnel or with an adult from the Peanuts cartoon.  And it’s so avoidable.  As much attention should be paid to the questions we are asking and the content we are creating as to the medium we record these memories and stories on.

Podcasts have become a popular way for oral historians to feature their stories, share bite-sized portions of their work.  There’s been a lot of buzz about this topic in our field.  Lots of oral history institutions are getting into podcasting – talking about and featuring their material.  It’s a great opportunity to have the content reach broader and more diverse audiences.  It gives our collections longer lives and a wider geographic and demographic scope.  Our interviews become more flexible and versatile if shared in this way.  It’s also a great way to get reacquainted with your collection and the stories in it.  But if oral historians are not trained properly in sound recording techniques, podcast pieces won’t be a successful way to highlight our important work.

View All Blog Annual Meeting Workshops Articles.