A Room Full of Passionate Historians by Mohammad Ataie

UMass History Department Holds Oral History Workshop with the Moving Memories Lab

On October 1st, the UMass Oral History Lab held an oral history workshop to provide introductory level training to students and community partners who are planning to do oral history. Oral History Lab faculty Emily T. Hamilton (an Assistant Professor, oral historian, and historian of science), Samuel J. Redman (Associate Professor and oral and public historian); Jason Higgins (a UMass Ph.D. candidate and Director of the Incarcerated Veterans Oral History Project), and Tanya Pearson (a Ph.D. student and Director of the Women of Rock Oral History Project housed at the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College) welcomed a group of new oral historians to introduce some basic interview techniques, tips on recording and staging oral history interviews, and an in-depth discussion of oral history ethics.

“The UMass Oral History Lab serves to bring together students, scholars, and community groups to collaboratively improve oral history projects of all kinds,” says Professor Samuel Redman in response to Past@Present’s query about this workshop. “One way we go about doing this is by organizing occasional one-day Oral History Crash Course workshops. Recent UMass Oral History Lab Crash Course workshops have taken place at UMass Amherst, UMass Springfield, Brown University, Clark University, and Berkshire Community College. In the workshop, we practice our interviewing skills and work to develop our approaches to writing about and archiving oral histories. Workshop participants have gone on to establish their own oral history projects and make more accessible existing archival oral histories.”

The October 1st workshop was attended by students and scholars from inside and outside the UMass Amherst. “We were thrilled to welcome a large and diverse group of professionals connected to the Forbes Library in Northampton, Massachusetts,” says Redman. “Additionally, we were fortunate to welcome four additional graduate students from the Department of History at UMass Amherst – each with a varying degree of previous oral history experience. Having the opportunity to come together to discuss the challenges and opportunities related to this methodology is exciting. Often, as historians, our work puts us into isolation or in small teams. It is a pleasure, therefore, to have the opportunity to collectively discuss the problems and promise related to recorded interviews with a room full of passionate historians and professionals.”

Jason Higgins, a UMass Ph.D. candidate who was part of organizing and facilitating the workshop, says that the participants learned “to plan oral history projects, ask effective questions, and follow principles and best practices of the Oral History Association.” During his portion of the workshop, Higgins provided in the workshop an introduction to ethical concerns of doing oral history. “While the workshop could not exhaust all of the potential dilemmas, it focused on key issues that oral historians must learn to navigate ethically and responsibility, including trauma and shared authority,” says Higgins. Other topics covered during the workshop included project planning, interview techniques, transcription, recording equipment, privacy and informed consent, and a variety of approaches to making oral history accessible (i.e. documentaries, websites, exhibits, etc.), and more.

Typically, the Oral History Crash Course trains local residents working on a range of different projects. This rendition was different – and special, in that it was undertaken in conjunction with a new collaborative, community-based initiative. Hailing from Forbes Library, Northampton Open Media, Northampton Senior Services, Historic Northampton, the Center for New Americans and the Lilly Library, the local librarians, archivists, and historians in attendance are all partnering on the forthcoming “Moving Memories Lab.” Spearheaded by Forbes Library and supported by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the lab will eventually enable community members to record and preserve their stories, photos and other memories, and to add these materials to the Forbes Library’s local history collection. Audio recording equipment will be available to borrow via Forbes’ Library of Things program, and project participants will eventually train other community members in using digitization equipment, caring for digital memories and files, and recording oral histories. Informed by the earlier work of the District of Columbia Public Library and Queens Public Library, this project will make the Forbes Library the only public library using the memory lab model in New England.

“We were excited to kick off the activities for the Moving Memories Lab with a day of learning and professional development that brought all our community partners together in one space to get to know each other, share ideas, and hear about the many oral history projects in progress in our area,” noted Heather Diaz of Forbes Library, adding that the projects explored ranged from a teen podcasting workshop to the Baystate Hotel Music History Archive to Historic Northampton’s Single Room Occupancy project. “It was great to take space to explore what a powerful tool oral history can be, and, for public libraries, how we can use this tool to enable our community to record our own histories in our own voices.”

Another participant in the October 1st workshop was Peter Kleeman, a MA Public History student at UMass and co-founder of the Space Age Museum. He says that he found the workshop useful for improving his oral history techniques. “Doing interviews is an art form that requires a combination of soft skills and technical aptitude, so I am eager to continually learn from others with more experience. The workshop provided some insights from four oral historians who have focused on very different types of projects,” Kleeman tells Past@Present. He says that hearing the accounts and strategies helped reinforce aspects of his approach as well as introduce new things to try. “The workshop focused more on interview methods but also offered a general overview of how to use common equipment. Besides developing my own oral history projects for the Space Age Museum, I am hoping my growing experience in this field will qualify me for similar work at other institutions when I graduate,” adds Kleeman.

Both Redman and Higgins believe that the importance of oral history for students and scholars and the related challenges make holding similar workshops necessary for students and scholars. “Oral history is an increasingly necessary skill for historians working on topics in modern or recent history,” emphasizes Redman. “Moreover, oral history provides another tool in our toolkits as academic historians, public historians, and history practitioners. By this, I mean that all historians, archivists, and museum professionals can likely benefit from some level of familiarity with oral history.”

“Since about the mid-twentieth century, oral history has grown as both a sub-field in history and a methodological approach to studying the past by recording interviews with first-hand witnesses to past events,” says Redman. “Not only is it the case that many historians (and scholars in other fields) are recording new oral histories, there also exist thousands of oral histories on a wide variety of topics sitting in archives and closets across the United States and around the world. How do we interpret these unique sources? How might we understand the specific legal and ethical challenges relating to using these materials while also embracing the unique potential related to voice and storytelling when teaching about the past?” These are key questions that, according to Redman, students and scholars can discuss in oral history workshops. 

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