Oral History & Me? It’s Complicated.

You know how it goes. You’re tired, you’re covered in dirt, your brain hurts, and you want a glass of water or a soda or something stronger.  You can’t bear the thought of measuring one more darn window sill or trying to accurately document a door frame.   At what point does it become ridiculous? Or you can’t lift one more screen of dirt. Yes, you’ve succumbed to just referring to it as dirt and rocks.  Or you’ve transcribed hours of interviews and if you have to replay one more line of recording, you’re going to explode! 

Sometimes our work is exhausting and excruciating.  Sometimes it’s all we have to keep doing what we’re doing because it gets monotonous and plain difficult. Where is the light at the end of the tunnel, we may ask.   

In my oral history line of work, I have listened to recordings and excerpts from recordings and read the text excerpts more times than I would ever want to count.  I’ve heard everyone’s voices so many times that I can truly hear their voices in my head. When I’m reading a piece of the transcript, I remember the inflection of a particular word before I hear it.  Do you call this a sickness? Perhaps it is an acquired skill?  Maybe it is an inherent skill? No matter what the cause, you can see what oral history does to a person.

However, I imagine that all fields benefit from the suffering that our brains incur by absorbing the information.  This is how one becomes an “expert.”  [Readers: examples from your branch of preservation are welcome!] And while I may complain about the tedious nature of oral history once in a while, I realize that without this occasional redundancy, I would not understand my project as well.  I’d have to look up something that an interviewee said rather than automatically have it in the front of my brain.  Having everything at hand saves time and assists in compiling the history I’ve learned. A necessary evil? 

I have come to think of my project, Overhills, as a sibling.  No matter how much this place drives me crazy and how much I want to escape sometimes, I love it dearly. I love everything about Overhills: the environment, the people, the buildings, and the history.  I love the fact that I do remember about 90% of what my interviewees said during an interview.  I love that I know the community of Overhills because of my indulgence in the oral history project.  No matter how mad it makes me, it can always make me smile.

And thus I tell myself: these are the sorts of trials that we must face in our professions in order to do our very best and to offer our subjects of study what they deserve. Whether a building, a community, a landscape, or the unknown: without hard work, memorization, immersion, and tirelessness (okay, and tiredness), all aspects of the historic preservation field require our unwavering devotion.  And these subjects forgive our times of frustration because they know we’ll come crawling back to them to continue our research and studies. It’s a labor of love. Thankfully, I have found a balanced love-hate relationship to be healthy.   But, still, my feelings are complicated.