Friday, January 21, 2011

The Plainfield Oral History Programs

(Our fifth entry in an ongoing series on preserving memories of loved ones…)

Last week, I interviewed Joe Da Rold, Director of the Plainfield (NJ) Public Library, on his experience with developing effective community-based oral history programs.  These programs are wonderful.  They record information that could easily be lost forever, preserve it, and provide ongoing access to a rich body of material capable of offering new insights and perspectives into our past.

Here’s Joe’s description of his experience with oral history programs in Plainfield, New Jersey:

“Prior to 2007 Plainfield Public Library had no oral history program.  Frankly, with several huge local history projects on our plate, I did not feel we had the time, funding, or personnel to begin an oral history program. 

“Our contact with StoryCorps began when a community member requested library space for the StoryCorps Griot interviews, as part of a nationwide project to record the stories of African-Americans.  In exchange for not charging for space rental, I requested copies of the DVDs for our archives.  What impressed me about the StoryCorps’ operation was that it was a turnkey set-up of personnel, equipment, legal documents, etc.  The 18 Griot interviews went so smoothly, I was soon in discussion with them about conducting our ‘Latinos in Conversation.’  After the great success of these interviews, StoryCorps then invited us to conduct another two-day session as part of their nationwide ‘Historias’ project.

“If you’re serious about developing an oral history program, I think it’s important to have a focus – not just record random interviews.  When we launched our ‘Latinos In Conversation’ project, the focus was twofold: First, to select first-generation immigrants who have become people of achievement in their fields.  Through personal contacts and referrals I selected a dozen
Latinos who had become well-known in the Plainfield community.

“Why was this important?  Because Plainfield has been a predominantly African-American community for forty years.  The 2000 Census began to show that Plainfield’s multinational Hispanic community was growing dramatically.  As I write this, we are still awaiting the 2010 Census local statistics, but the continuing trend in changing demographics is already documented by the school district’s ‘languages spoken at home’ statistics at the various grade levels.  Many doors are still closed to Latinos in the political world, but they are breaking through.  So the focus behind our project was that our interviewees were today’s pioneers of the Hispanic community, with some of them, and those they influence, poised to become tomorrow’s City Councilors and mayors.

“The second focus was far less complex: the idea was to document why the interviewees chose to settle in Plainfield, and to a larger extent, in New Jersey.  While this is basic to documenting local history, this was an intensely interesting issue to me, because I have always been fascinated by the existence of ethnic settlements within larger ethnic groups.  During the thirty years I lived in Los Angeles, I knew several members of the less-documented Cuban community within the vast Mexican-American culture.  Plainfield’s Spanish-speaking immigrants represent over 40 Latin countries, and they retain their distinct cultures.  During the oral history interviews, we explored the differences –not just the similarities – among the Spanish-speaking cultures in Plainfield.

“Within the 25 Latino oral histories, we have uncovered dramatic, interesting stories, which we have since been able to share at library conferences, ESL workshops, and community presentations.  Within a two-day period, I personally interviewed seven of the 13 participants.  I was exhausted, but totally exhilarated by their stories and their trust in me.  We are excited about continuing to work in this field, integrating oral history into our Local History program.

“The most important resource a library can bring to an oral history project is to transcribe the tapes.  We have outsourced all of our transcriptions, funding the expense with local grants, and we have been very pleased with the results.  These days you will end up with an electronic file, from which you can print a text document for your files.  Having a transcription significantly increases a researcher’s access to the content of the oral history subject.”

Image Courtesy StoryCorps.  Photo by Rob Lowell.

Programs like these are a reminder that oral histories are important to the entire community and not just the family.  Don’t miss opportunities to encourage participation in programs like this.  And if you’re really inspired, even consider the possibility of volunteering in your community to assist with this important work.

© 2010 Lee Price

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