Oral history is not the most common field, whether associated with historic preservation, folklore, anthropology or another field. Typically when someone asks me what I do, it takes a well constructed response to allow that person to understand oral history. Some people have never heard of it, some people have a vague idea of the process and purpose, and some are not interested (thankfully, I rarely encounter such a person.)
However, at the Oral History Association, everyone knows exactly what I mean if they ask me about my profession. Being at the OHA is a completely new environment for me. Suddenly I’m surrounded by hundreds of people who are passionate about oral history and excited and working hard in their communities or even nationally to bring oral history to as many people as possible. The workshops and sessions are inspiring, humbling, and reassuring all at the same time. Having the opportunity to hear about other projects and how people are employing oral history in order to accomplish their goals is wonderful. Some people have been doing oral history for decades while others have just started. The range of project s and thoughts provides a diverse field that makes for good discussion and education.
What makes me smile the most is the sense of community that oral historians have found existing among their interviewees, whether the interviewers have helped to create it or have helped to find that feeling again. Everyone who has worked on an oral history project has faced similar challenges: reluctant interviewees, those who do not believe that they have anything of value to say, obtaining access to the community, whether geographic, social, or other, funding obstacles, the race against time, obtaining release forms, etc. The list is long. Another universal and more important experience is how rewarding their efforts are, for the oral historians and for the communities and individuals that they have interviewed. It’s a pleasure to hear fellow oral historians discussing these projects and their favorite experiences. You can tell that interviewers will never forget their subjects, the discussions, or the voices. The projects are extremely diverse, which proves to me how widespread the field is and how human it is to want to share stories and discover the past and pass it along to others. Other fields cannot capture what oral history is able to capture, no matter what the subject. Oral history is how we view ourselves and share our views with fellow humans.
This conference is providing me with constant reflection and evaluation of oral history and historic preservation, so much so that I cannot keep up with myself. I think that the best conferences and lessons will allow you to walk away with a continued belief in your own project, new knowledge about what you should be doing (or what to correct), and an understanding of what everyone else is doing in the field. So far, the OHA does not disappoint me; everyone is friendly and incredibly knowledgeable, interesting, and interested in the work of everyone else. It is a positive experience.
[In another post, I will feature highlights of the conference sessions – but it’s not over yet. In upcoming posts: oral history & the law, digital preservation of oral history, other oral history projects, and plenary sessions.]