Monday, January 31, 2011

Harnessing the Power of Oral History

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

A national nonprofit institution, StoryCorps has been mentioned several times in this blog over the past two weeks.  The mission of StoryCorps is “to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives.”  In other words, they promote the practice of preserving memories.  And not only do they promote it, but they know how to go about doing it.

If you’re looking for resources to help you in your quest to preserve family history, check out StoryCorps and see if they can help.

If things work out, your family member’s story could join the 30,000 taped interviews that they’ve assisted in collecting since the program started in 2003.

Joe Da Rold, Director of the Plainfield (NJ) Public Library, collaborated with StoryCorps on oral history projects that recorded and preserved the stories of some of Plainfield’s African-American and Latino residents.  In recalling these oral history projects, Joe remembered one particular interview during the Latinos in Conversation project that both captured the importance of the oral tradition within a family and beautifully expressed the value of a unique reminiscence.  The following are two excerpts from this Latinos in Conversation interview:

INTERVIEWEE:  “And the thing about it is that my children and now my grandchildren, you know, the older aunts or uncles, they sit down and tell the stories of when they were growing up, and we all sit around.  I remember when I was in Puerto Rico, when I was there, at my aunt's house: everybody used to sit around and listen to the stories.  And so now my grandchildren, they hear me and they hear my cousins and they hear my mom, and they sit around, and they have gone to family reunions to Puerto Rico and to New York, so they learned a lot like how my parents and my grandparents, what they went through, and we keep up the same like -- pasteles, the eating in Christmastime, pasteles, the panin, that’s pork.  So all those things, we keep up.

“... one thing that my father would do was like every Sunday when we got there, we would get in the car, and he would fill up the trunk with food and drinks, and we would go to learn from each town.  Like we would go from town to town, and learn what that town had, like [Ayjuanito] is the town of the clowns, Guayama is the town of the witches, Yauco is the town of the coffee.  So we learned, and we met people, and we learned different -- if we would say on one side of the island [olla], they would say caldero, and that’s a pot.  It was the same pot, but in one side of the island, it was different.  So I learned a lot about my culture, and I think that was the best that they did, the teachers, because the beauty of the island, and how the traditions and the families, though, that made me love Puerto Rico.”

I’d like to express a very warm and grateful thank you to Joe Da Rold for sharing his experience and insights during the past two weeks!

Our series on preserving memories will continue on Wednesday with an interview with an expert in audio preservation (how to ensure the survival of the material on those fragile cassette tapes!).

Friday, January 28, 2011

A Memory Book

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

Regrets are common when it comes to oral history.  Either you didn’t get to it while there was still time or, even if you did record some stories, you have to live with the knowledge that you missed so much more than you got.  There will always be gaps and missed opportunities.

Avoid the paralysis of regret.  Think of other people who might be able to shed light on your family past and have them share – while there’s still time.

In our last entry, Joe Da Rold, Director of the Plainfield (NJ) Public Library, suggested alternative means of preserving memories such as memoir writing and e-mail chains.  But I left off a third strategy that’s especially close to Joe’s heart – creating a family memory book.  Here are Joe’s personal thoughts on how this approach worked for his family:

“I’ve always regretted that I did not have sufficient interest in my own family history when I was younger.  By the time I started developing an interest, too many of my family who knew the history were gone.  I would urge family historians to collect whatever letters and photographs they can find, and authenticate them as soon as possible.  Although I became the repository of photographs from both sides of my family, so many are unidentified and undated.  The ones that are, are priceless.

“The most treasured document in my private archives is a Memory Book that my sister and I created for my parents’ 50th Wedding Anniversary.  Going through their Christmas mailing list, we wrote to family and family friends to ask them to contribute a memory of our parents.  Some sent photos that brought back our own childhood memories.  Longtime friends of our parents shared memories of couples enjoying their years before children entered the scene.  And family members shared touching memories of how our parents had touched their lives.  My sister and I – only one year apart – each wrote one-page memories of our childhoods.  You would think our stories would be nearly identical, but how different our experiences and observations were!

“Although we had hoped to make copies of this book, this was long, long before the days of desktop publishing.  But now that my parents are gone, the original has come back to me, and what a keepsake it is.  I recommend families consider doing this for every important family occasion because the friends and family who contribute memories will never be the same as the years pass.”

© 2010 Lee Price

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Memoir Writing and e-mail Chains

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

Preserve those memories while there’s still time!

For the past two weeks, we’ve been looking at recorded oral history interviews and how they’re used to preserve memories of loved ones.  I was focused on this particular strategy (preserving memories on audiotape) because it was the approach my sister used to record my mother’s memories.

However, Joe Da Rold, Director of the Plainfield (NJ) Public Library, reminds me that the oral history interview isn’t the only way to preserve memories.  At his library, they strongly encourage the practice of memoir writing:

“Our newest program at the library, the ‘Memoir Writing Club’ has become so popular we now have two groups of participants, and there could be another starting soon.  This began as an offshoot of our work in using residents to help identify the historical images in our photograph collection.  Some would start to elaborate and staff quickly realized we needed to capture this information.  The ‘Club’ was organized as a way to have residents share stories with us and with each other.  Many attend because they have been asked by family members to write family reminiscences but were unable to get started on their own.  Photographs and brief recollections written by staff provided the initial inspiration for the members.  ‘Club’ members now bring in their own photos and writings.  Approaches change from month to month, with ideas solicited from the participants: some write tributes; some choose a theme; and some continue to base their stories on photos.  Our Memoir Writing Club members are now delighted to read their written memories aloud.”

The Memoir Writing Club at Plainfield Public Library.

Equally intriguing, Joe mentions a new cyber-strategy for preserving family memories.  Instead of concentrating on the memories of a single family member, this e-mail strategy widens the circle to create a conversation of memories:

“Although many bemoan that e-mail is a poor replacement for letter writing, e-mail gives us an opportunity to save both ends of a correspondence.  I’ve heard of some creative families who send chain letters to family members, each adding and forwarding.  What a great way this is to record and share family history, and how much easier this is than using quill and Pony Express!”

© 2010 Lee Price

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Art of the Oral History Interview

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

Seven years ago, my sister Jamie interviewed our mother to capture her memories of her youth and the old family stories.  To help refresh Mom’s memory (and to remind herself of the stories that she wanted to capture on the recordings), Jamie wrote and designed a small booklet of family history.

Plainfield Public Library.
According to Joe Da Rold, Director of the Plainfield (NJ) Public Library, this is a good approach to bring to any oral history interview, whether family or community-based.  Advance preparation and research make for a better interview.

In a recent interview, I asked Joe about the challenges of conducting oral history interviews:

Be Prepared
“Of the twenty-five ‘Latinos In Conversation’ and the ‘Historias’ oral histories, the most successful interviews I conducted were the ones where I already knew some details about my subjects’ lives.  The pressure of an interview can be just as great for the interviewer.  Sometimes you can focus so intently on your upcoming question, you can forget to listen to what your interviewee is saying.  Even with a fixed set of questions, the interviewer can get nervous and lose track of where he is.  Being a bit familiar with your guest and remembering the overall focus of your interview will help both of you feel more at ease.”

Faulty Memories
“Years ago I witnessed a 95-year old local artist giving an interview to a television reporter, who had asked her to describe an unusual painting technique that had become her trademark.  Her adult daughter took me aside afterwards and said, ‘That’s not the way she painted.  Mom got confused by the excitement.’”

Beware of Leading Questions
“I once reviewed a transcript for a taping made during our StoryCorps Griot project and it was obvious that the interviewer, who was the adult daughter of the subject, was purposely leading her mother into responses she wanted to hear about racial discrimination.  The mother stopped and said, ‘No, that never happened.’”

Keep Interruptions to a Minimum
“The most likely reason I would ever interrupt the speaker would be if they were inaudible to me or the microphone.  It is very easy to revisit a particular subject by asking for more details.  You never want to embarrass the interviewee.”

© 2010 Lee Price

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

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Thoughtful Approach to Preserving Memories

While this blog is often narrowly concerned with preserving the memories of immediate family members, the subject of preserving family stories and individual voices is one that naturally expands outward.  The lives of our loved ones intersect with many others, and their memories and keepsakes may offer valuable contributions to a broader knowledge of our changing world.

Last week, I wrote about how my sister made recordings of my mother’s memories of her childhood and ancestors.  But it didn’t occur to me that this isn’t always a job simply for family members.  Other organizations – such as libraries, historical societies, and community centers – have often taken the lead in soliciting these stories in order to benefit the entire

Joe Da Rold, the Director of the Plainfield (NJ) Public Library, launched a local oral history program in 2007 as a natural outgrowth of the library’s commitment to preserving and honoring local history.  For his previous leadership with history initiatives, Joe was recognized by the New Jersey Historical Commission in 2004 with their Award of Recognition for “outstanding service to public knowledge and preservation of the history of New Jersey.”

Joe’s own involvement with collecting local oral history was sparked by a collaboration with StoryCorps, a national organization which solicited the library’s participation in a project to record the stories of local African-Americans.  This led Joe to develop new collaborations to serve Plainfield, including “Latinos in Conversation” and participation in StoryCorps’ nationwide “Historias” project.  In 2007, Joe received the New Jersey Library Association’s Susan G. Swartzburg Preservation Award, and he is currently the 2010 New Jersey Librarian of the Year.

Over the next week, I’ll be sharing from an interview I conducted with Joe last week that touches on the many ways available to preserve the voices of loved ones, from recording oral histories to encouraging the practice of memoir writing.

© 2010 Lee Price

Friday, January 14, 2011

Regrets for Lost Memories

The four hours of stories and reminiscences that my mother recorded onto audiocassettes in 2003 are a treasure of our family collection.  My sister Jamie’s foresight in organizing this project can’t be underestimated.  However, I will share her regrets in the hopes that they might inspire others to go even further in capturing their family’s histories while there’s still time.

Jamie’s original intention was to preserve the old family stories.  When Mom initially made recordings that concentrated on her youth and courtship, Jamie redirected her toward the older stories that she had heard growing up.  While we do have some very good reminiscences of her early years, the tapes shift to an emphasis on the old Virginia stories when Jamie is assisting.  Jamie and I love these stories, but now we regret that there isn’t more personal detail from her own life.

Jamie regrets not doing this with our father, too.

As I work on the June and Art blog, I become increasingly aware of the gaps in the descriptions of everyday life.  People take pictures of the big events and
the red letter days – we have hundreds of pictures of vacations, weddings, and birthdays.  But we have so few pictures of the kitchen,
the family room, the bedrooms, the basement, and the back yard.  These are the places that we take for granted.  It’s as if we think
they’ll always be there and always be the same.  So I’ll add this to the list of our oral history regrets:  I wish that there was more on everyday life back in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, when my mother was a child, a teenager, and a young woman.

© 2010 Lee Price

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Preserving Memories on Tape

Christmas 2002:  Aware that our mother’s health was rapidly declining, my sister prepared a special present for her.  That Christmas, she gave Mom the opportunity to preserve memories:  an oral history package consisting of a cassette tape player, four blank cassette tapes, and a small booklet of family history to trigger memories.  After Mom opened the present, Jamie explained the intent of the gift (to record her memories of family stories), asked her to attempt recording the stories herself, and promised to help if needed.

Although she was nervous, my mother managed to record nearly 90 minutes of material over the first few months.  She usually recorded in segments of about five to ten minutes.  When she returned for the next session, she would listen to what she had said previously and then would open with any corrections.

Jamie visited twice during the spring and summer of 2003.  While my father was out doing his volunteer work at the local hospital, Jamie spent time with Mom, helping her move ahead with the oral history.  Jamie would ask leading questions or bring up subjects and then let Mom talk.  When needed, Jamie would ask for clarifications.

“She was very self-conscious doing it,” Jamie said, “but she conceded it was a good idea.”  She understood that it was important to keep these stories alive within the family.  Jamie was particularly interested in getting a record of the old Virginia stories.  “I wanted her to tell about Aunt Snick holding off the Yankees with a shotgun and how Uncle Frank started the Page County Fair.”

These stories, and many more, are on the four hours of reminiscences preserved on the cassette tapes.

© 2010 Lee Price

Monday, January 10, 2011

Our Family History on Audio Cassette

Shortly after my mother died in late 2004, my sister gave my wife four cassette tapes to have copies made.  My wife made two copies of each tape.  My sister kept the originals, our family kept one set of the copies, and the third set went to my uncle (my mother’s brother).  The tapes are each 60 minutes long, 30 minutes per side.  On the tapes, my mother talks about her life and shares older family stories that she heard growing up.

I put off listening to these tapes for over six years.  It was something I could always put off.  I was confident the tapes would be there when I needed to hear them.

Well, the time has come.  I put the first tape in the cassette player, get comfortable on the couch, and listen.  I hear my mother’s actual voice for the first time in years, sounding weak and shaky from Parkinson’s disease.

“I am June Virginia Price.  My father and mother met in Culpepper, Virginia.  I was born in Patchogue, New York on January 25, 1929.  My father was from Deep River, Connecticut.  He had gone to Brown University and needed money to go back for the second year…”

Over the next two weeks, this blog will address the subject of oral histories – how my sister went about preserving my mother’s memories onto tape and how we now have a responsibility to ensure that this part of our family collection remains accessible.  I’ll be talking with my sister as well as with experts on oral history recording and audio preservation.

We are so fortunate to have these tapes.

© 2010 Lee Price

Thursday, January 6, 2011

From Transcript to Blog

From a preservation standpoint, our family’s first priority is the letters themselves.  They preserve the genuine historic record.  One step removed from that is the transcription, described yesterday.  And then there’s the blog…

The June and Art blog is an interpretation.  With June and Art, I attempt to make the historical material in our family collection accessible and interesting for a general audience.  It is a couple of steps removed from being authentic preservation.

Each item – letter, transcripts, and blog – serves a different purpose.

The value of a transcript increases according to the degree the content is valued independent of the object.  Okay, that sounds a little confusing.  But here’s how it works:  The stories in the letters – and their ability to capture the voices of June and Art – are of much greater personal value to us than the letters as objects.  If we ever lose the letters, it would be unfortunate but not a tragedy as long as
we still have the transcripts.  (On the other hand, this wouldn’t be the case with an oil painting by a famous artist – or even an oil painting by Art Price.  A digitized image of the painting would never come close to the value we place on the actual object.)

The June and Art blog interprets the historic record.  When editing the letters, I make an effort to eliminate redundancies, to streamline the main story threads, and to clarify obscure references.  When a story line leads nowhere (i.e. minor references to water rationing in 1949), I don’t include it.  I can promise that the central love story remains intact, and I’ve even carefully kept all the passages that edge ever so slightly (if much imagination is applied) toward the suggestive.  The letters are edited but not bowdlerized.

Artwork and photographs are digitized for the blog then tweaked using Picasa software to make them work better on a computer screen.  They are 21st century interpretations of the originals.

I’m very pleased with how everything looks on the June and Art blog and delighted that my parents’ artwork is now more accessible than ever before.  But the originals must remain my primary concern as we work to preserve a family collection.

© 2010 Lee Price

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Transcription of Letters

As objects, the June and Art letters are charming.  My mother’s letters looked like this:

And my father’s letters looked like this:

But there’s a large gap between “charming” and “useful.”  In order to make the letters more useful and accessible, they needed to be transcribed – manually reentered into the computer via a word processing program.

At some point, my parents had separated the letters, with my mother keeping her letters and my father his.  My first step was to combine the two sets of letters (his and hers) into chronological order.  I organized the letters, placing each with its corresponding envelope into a plastic sleeve and then ordering the sleeves into three 3-ring binders.

Then I started typing.  Fortunately, I’m a fairly fast typist.  And this task offered a good opportunity to become intimately familiar with the letters and the story they told.

At first, I attempted to faithfully and accurately reproduce the exact content of the letters, right down to the misspellings.  After entering the first dozen letters, I realized that the effort to capture the misspellings accurately was too time-consuming, nearly doubling the time it took to enter each letter.  Therefore, I switched to making basic spelling corrections as I went along.

The original spelling mistakes are preserved in the letters themselves.

The transcription in Microsoft Word corrects the misspellings, but otherwise faithfully captures the content.  The transcription process helps to ensure the long-term preservation of the content by maintaining it in at least two places and through two different media.

© 2010 Lee Price