Preservation ABCs: O is for Oral History

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.

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O is for Oral History

A digital recorder for an oral history project.

A Tascam digital recorder for an oral history project.

Historic preservation can be considered an umbrella field for many related disciplines, though each field is its own profession and area of study, such as oral history. The Oral History Association defines the field as,

Oral history is a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events. Oral history is both the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word, and one of the most modern, initiated with tape recorders in the 1940s and now using 21st-century digital technologies.

Being an oral historian is a profession that is very much a labor of love. It’s challenging, but it’s incredibly rewarding. The opportunity to show ordinary people that their stories are valuable to history and how their stories connect to others – that opportunity cannot be surpassed.

Oral history involves phone calls, background research, searching for interviewees, developing project goals and questions, choosing appropriate equipment, setting up interview dates, establishing trusting relationships with interviewees, listening, synthesizing, transcribing, answering questions and formulating reports … it’s quite the process. But throughout oral history projects you come to know people well. These people let you into their lives, if only a portion of it. Some offer coffee while you talk. Others need some reassuring about the recorders or legal forms to sign. And you learn people are beautiful, unique and interesting and have so much in common with each other. It’s an honor to conduct an oral history project.

Historic preservation includes oral history because preservation values places, stories and people, all of which oral history can connect. Sometimes a place lacks a known story because there is no written record, but someone can fill in that gap with memories. Both disciplines complement each other. At the simplest level, you could consider historic preservation as the built environment and oral history as the stories to fill and connect the environment.

Overhills Revisited

Overhills will forever remain a beloved memory of mine and a peaceful bubble of a world in the rural sandhills of North Carolina. I may not have lived or visited Overhills during its life as an active hunting retreat or family retreat, but I had the honor and pleasure of working for the buildings and the people who inhabited and loved Overhills. There was  a point in time when I thought that there would never be a day when I did not think of Overhills; but, years have passed since my oral history work finished and it now seems like a dream, like another world. My thoughts on Overhills are spaced further apart, but no less meaningful. The place, the people, the project have helped to define who I am. (The oral history project report can be accessed and downloaded through Fort Bragg.)

Aside from the Overhills Oral History Project, the property was documented under the Historic American Landscape Survey for the Library of Congress as the Overhills Historic District. (Read the HALS report.)Many of the records have been digitized: photographs of Overhills, floor plans, landscape plans, historical research. Not everything is digitized yet, but it is enough to trigger memories as I browse through the collection. Take a look with me.

Nursery Road, one of the roads through Overhills. Photograph credit: HALS NC-3-26. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Overhills approach road to the Hill. Photograph credit: HALS NC-3-15. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Overhills polo barn. Photograph credit: HALS NC-3-16. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Croatan, a house at Overhills. Photograph credit: HALS NC-3-8. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

These pictures remind me of the drive to and through Overhills, walking the grounds through the long leaf pines, exploring and attempting to learn as much as I could about the layout and landscape, piecing together historical research & oral history, visiting the houses and barns and imagining Overhills in its heyday.

Sadly, today, Overhills continues to deteriorate and/or suffers from vandalism. It pains me to hear of another building that has caught fire or to come across current Overhills pictures scattered across the internet that show the state of the place. It is incredibly sad, amplified by the fact that I know the stories and the history and the people of Overhills. Eventually, I’ll stop randomly searching for Overhills photos on search engines.

However, the HALS photographs and documents, in addition to the oral history project products, allow the good memories to stay with me. So I continue to look through the documentation. I don’t want to forget anything I know about Overhills. I’m sure my reaction time to specific questions – probably those found in the Overhills archives – is delayed from a few years ago, but that’s okay. I remember the bigger pictures. While my preference is preservation and rehabilitation instead of mitigation, I understand the importance and strength of proper and creative documentation because of this project. No matter which memory strikes me, I am reminded of the significant and unique story of Overhills, and how much I love(d) it.

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Other posts about Overhills: 3 Hours in the Life of an Oral Historian. Carolina Day. Another Day in the Field. My Ode to Oral History. Overhills by Jeffrey D. Irwin & Kaitlin O’Shea. Oral History & Me? It’s Complicated. Overhills Book Release. Johnny. Those Unknown Photograph Subjects. Why They Don’t Let Me Outside. Time Travel Wish. Voice as a Powerful Primary Source.

Talk with a Veteran

In 2004, I had the honor and privilege to interview my uncle, James H. Robb, for the Veterans History Project. In honor of Veterans Day, I’ve been listening to the interview today. I realized my uncle explained his experiences of basic training and his time in the Vietnam War with caution and care, in the sense that he expresses the impact and seriousness of the war, without revealing anything traumatizing – things that might not be appropriate for sharing with a young relative.

Before this interview, I knew very little about the military or about the Vietnam War. My uncle is well spoken and intelligent and he taught me a great deal within this 63 minute interview. I’d recommend his interview as a good introduction to learning about the Vietnam War. Click here for the transcript or the audio.

Thank you for your service with the United States Military, Uncle Jimmy. We are forever grateful and proud.

Voice as a Powerful Primary Source

As the Overhills project comes to a close, I spend my time organizing files, editing the report, planning its distribution and doing the last few weeks of work and necessary communication that comes with closing a project. I have catalogued over 700 photographs from Overhills, and most of the time I feel it is sewn into my memory. How could I possibly squeeze one more Overhills fact into my brain? Yet this past week we have added two new interviews (i.e. more facts, stories, and memories), one of them a second interview and one a new interviewee that we had never able to find during the interviewing phase.

Prior to this week, the last of the 30+ interviews took place in January 2008. I hadn’t transcribed an interview in its entirety in just as long. This project phase of writing and editing brought me to view Overhills in another angle, in a more reflective, analytical way. Yet now that I am transcribing a few more hours of Overhills stories and memories, I return to that first world of Overhills that I entered.  Listening to these interviews I am reminded of everyone’s love for Overhills and of how this place truly was their home or second home. Listening and transcribing has that effect. I am studying someone’s words, the tone of his voice, and actually seeing what he is saying. It is in his words, spoken and then transcribed, that I am drawn back to Overhills, to the buildings, the people, the day to day life, and the voices that I’ve met and become familiar with throughout this project.  It’s a comfortable world that I’m visiting; I know the peoples and places to which my interviewee refers and I’m content to listen, type, and absorb.

And while I can’t say that, in the past, I have made an effort to pay attention to the audio exhibits at historic sites and in museums, I can say now that if you want to truly understand a place or an event, the best thing to do is to listen to a primary source. A few minutes of an authentic voice sharing history with you, the listener and learner, and you’ll be transported to the scene in history. Reading a transcript or reading an exhibit display does not compare to audio of an oral history project.  The next time I want to truly visit a historic site, event, or landscape, I will eagerly consider the audio tour or exhibit that features audio recordings.

The World of Interviews

During high school, I worked on the school newspaper every year.  My junior and senior years, I enrolled in the journalism class.  I loved everything about journalism and newspaper production: interviewing people, coming up with story ideas, writing, editing (or sometimes slashing), layout, proofreading, captions, terminology, teaching the younger students, and of course, the brand new, hot-off-the-press stack of newspapers.

In college, when I participated in the Veterans History Project through my folklore class, interviewing a subject came naturally to me. My professor told me that my experience in journalism had definitely given me a step-up over people who had never done such a thing. I loved this project. Of course, this foreshadowed my future in oral history.

Yet, despite the lessons I learned in journalism and folklore, the similarities, and the root of wanting to know the story, the fields are incredibly distinct and interviewing for journalism is an entirely different task than conducting an oral history interview.  [By journalism, I mean am referring to typical newspapers, which is not necessarily every facet of journalism].

Generally, news interviews are short and to the point. A news interviewer asks direct questions about what she needs to know.  There isn’t a need for a relationship and extended communication between the interviewer and the interviewee.  Contrarily, an oral history interview is extended, often hours and sometimes multiple meetings. Establishing trust is essential. Following the interview agenda is important, not entirely expected. Most people will address topics irrelevant to the researcher’s goals.  Open ended, but guided questions are the best type to ask. After the interview, according to oral history ethics, the interviewee has the opportunity to review the transcript and any product. The interviewee can retract statements. In journalism, the interviewee has no idea what will appear in the paper.

I make these statements based on my own experiences. Keep in mind, my journalism days are limited to high school and my oral history methods may vary slightly from those of others. But, I mention these basic, stark differences because on a few occasions, potential oral history interviewees have been very wary of the oral history project, or have even refused because they had been misquoted in news articles. Therefore, they no longer trust anyone who uses the word interview.

That’s a fair enough reason, and often people’s fears are soothed with further explanations of the project and the interview process (recording, transcribing, interviewee review).  Many people initially dislike the idea of the interview being recorded, until they fully understand the transcript and availability to review and have a final say.  It’s commonplace in oral history work.

However, the fact that so many people feel they have been misquoted in newspapers in disheartening.  Indeed, I know how they feel. When Jeff and I were interviewed for our book, Overhills, we had no idea what would be in the paper or what snippets would be used, since the reporter barely wrote down anything. I imagine it’s a skill to remember interviews without an audio recorder. As it turns out, the article was fine, but until we were able to read it, the fear of misquotation lingered.

Of course, I imagine people have been misquoted in oral history projects, sometimes accidentally. Transcriptionists may not understand every word and therefore, unknowingly invent entirely new phrases and statements. (Sometimes, this is quite hilarious).  Or a transcript (accuracy unknown) can be the only product used, and extracted passages are not what the interviewee originally said.

Both journalism and oral history have their benefits and disadvantages and the quality from each will depend on the person conducting the research. For instance, a simple, local news story does not require hours of interview time and transcription. A few questions are all that is necessary.  On the other hand, the history of a house or of a town cannot be answered in a few journalism style interviews. Depth is necessary and the human memory works best with time to recall the past.  One field cannot replace the other.

I’m grateful for my time in journalism and oral history, both of which I enjoy. There is great value in both, when done properly. I’d have to say that oral history is much harder and more rewarding than journalism, but of course, that’s to me, since I love history and almost forgotten stories.  Now, if only journalists and oral historians could develop different ways to say “interview”, because I haven’t met anyone scared away from interviews by oral history projects, only those scared away from interviews by newspapers.  

And, call me a creature of habit, but I always prefer to be the interviewer rather than the interviewee.  To me, it’s easier.

 

Time Travel Wish

Some days I really wish I could travel back in time. Today I wish I could travel to Overhills, North Carolina in the 1920s or 1930s. I want to be an observer for just a little while, to see the daily happenings, the people, the country club days. I cannot imagine 40,000 acres of open space and rural solitude, fox hunting, or wealthy New York business chatting by the fire. I can easily picture the steam engines pulling into the Overhills station and postal workers tossing mail bags off the train, and the endless miles of horseback riding trails, and the golf course. Mostly, I want to see the houses that have since been demolished (the Clubhouse and the Covert) and the elaborate Hunt Complex of dog kennels, horse stables, and an elaborate “Circus”.  If I could choose just one building to explore, it would be the Clubhouse.
 

Luckily, the oral history interviewees have wonderfully described their years at Overhills, hundreds of photographs help to tell their stories, and I have set foot on Overhills. But you know as well as I do, that with the setting altered since the 1930s, some pieces remain missing. I suppose that is why many of us found historic preservation and history: we love the eternal mysteries of places and enjoy the search to find answers, and then the challenge of adequately sharing the past with others.  It is a profession but it is also a hobby; we can’t help it.  Still, while the unknown is always fascinating, we cannot help but wish to see the true story for ourselves.

This is not an Overhills horse, just a North Carolina horse. But when you imagine Overhills you should imagine horses leaning over fences like this one with the green pine trees and Carolina blue sky in the background.

This is not an Overhills horse, just a North Carolina horse. But when you imagine Overhills you should imagine horses leaning over fences like this one with the green pine trees and Carolina blue sky in the background.

I don’t own any photographs of Overhills for my own use [to post here], but if you are interested in Overhills, see the Fort Bragg Cultural Resources website or the Overhills book.  On the website there is a slideshow of Overhills photographs and a brief history. The oral history project will be completed in a few months and parts of it will be available for viewing on the Fort Bragg Cultural Resources site. (I’ll keep you posted).

To where do you wish you could time travel?

And My Heart Broke

Do you know what it feels like to watch history fade away before your own eyes and not be able to do a thing to save it? Do you know how it feels to know that within a short period of time, certain invaluable memories will be erased?  It pulls at my heart in a way similar to an abandoned house doomed for demolition does or the way lonesome washed-up towns look in photographs. This is partially a result of knowing that no one else has bothered to save this history and partially because I can’t do anything about it.

If you have ever worked in the oral history field or conducted research using oral history, there is a good chance that you know exactly what I mean.  Oral history has its positives and negatives, just like any form of research. It captures stories that would have never been heard or found otherwise, but your research is often at the mercy and kindness of your interviewees.  Ethically, you cannot interview someone and use that information without their permission. Interviewees must sign (what I call) a Deed of Gift form, which grants permission for the transcript and recording in the current project and sometimes, future use. The majority of interviewees are happy to sign the form and aid the project, but some people will refuse.

I have had a few people refuse to sign a deed of gift in my oral history experience. And no matter how much you explain to them the benefits of the particular project or show them exactly how their transcript and recordings will be used, no matter how much you reason with them, they will not concede. And there are only so many rounds of discussions you can have before it’s just too much and too exhausting (mentally and emotionally) and there is no more you can do.

Why would someone refuse? The reasons vary, but in my experience it has been because he or she did not like how the interview transcript read. Most people are shocked by their spoken words being directly translated on to paper. We all speak differently than we write, so reading oral history transcripts can be quite the trip. I assume only the most eloquent public speakers have near perfect transcripts.  This shock turns into vanity, which can be easily erased with the explanation of the transcript use.

Except for one case that I know: One interviewee could not fathom sharing this transcript (or even a few paragraphs of excerpts) with the public because she felt that she sounded less than educated, whereas she had indeed attended higher education to earn her M.A. After over one year of discussing and trying to convince her by demonstrating uses of the transcripts and explaining its value, she finally decided once and for all that she would not participate.

And my heart broke. Her memories are so important and rare and would complement the rest of the project. I should mention that her transcript read just fine, on par with the best interviews. It’s so sad to me that people could let vanity get in the way of sharing history, especially when they might be of the few who still know that information. Now, I cannot pass on this interview, not even to the archives. Nor can I tell this story because I’d have to cite the interview.  And so the memories will disappear.

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Readers, am I missing anything? Is there a solution I haven’t found? Please help if you can.

Humble Roots

A common occurrence while working on an oral history project is discovering the humble nature of interviewee subjects. Another recurring scenario is people mentioning that someone in the family had photographs, but they were lost so many years ago, whether because it was misplaced, damaged, or just forgotten. In some cases, the interviewees have photographs buried in basements and attics, though they just don’t have the time to find them. I understand, but it still pulls at my heart.

One of my favorite interview participants mentioned that her sister had an album years ago. She remembered pictures of herself and siblings at the beach in floppy hats and at Christmastime. Then she said to me, “I don’t know where the pictures are. They wouldn’t mean nothing to nobody else, but I would like to have them.”

It’s a bittersweet thought, to me, one that I like to recall over and over. Actually, those photographs probably would mean a lot to my research and everyone connected to the project. But, probably in this sweet old lady’s mind, they are just pictures of her family and they lived a common life just like everyone else. These are the people I enjoy interviewing. They have important knowledge because of who they are and what they lived, but throughout the entire research process, they will maintain that they are like anyone else.

And it’s always a reminder after hearing these stories how everyone is an important part of history.

Johnny

Some people are natural storytellers.  You can’t help but smile when they are speaking, sharing stories from their past or just spinning yarn. Folks like this are often rooted where they grew up, knowledgeable in local history and the old ways.  They are invaluable sources and have often never imagined that people would be interested in what they have to say.  Oral history and the love of primary sources for researchers have proved otherwise. 

Most of the people I meet who are native to rural North Carolina, I meet through my work on the Overhills project, whether during interviews or meetings relating to Overhills. Johnny is one of the people whom I have met. Johnny grew up in the Harnett County – Cumberland County areas of North Carolina and knew Overhills for his entire life. He and his brother worked on Overhills and Long Valley Farm and loved it dearly. He still takes care of Long Valley Farm, which is going to become part of the North Carolina State Parks.

Johnny is a true storyteller. He is a delight to be around and hear. Johnny can talk for hours about the old ways of tobacco farming. He states that he is not an expert, though he does know a lot because his Daddy was a tobacco farmer.  In the fall and spring, Johnny still slaughters his own pigs and makes sausage and bacon and pork.  People drive by his house and stop to take pictures and ask about what he is doing because their grandparents used to do that.

Clearly he is a sponge of information and a fountain of knowledge; I think I could talk to Johnny for days and never get tired of listening. I can imagine walking tobacco fields and listening to him teach about farming and telling stories of local history.  He is animated, as nice as can be, a true Southerner, and down to earth. I do think his carefree attitude and smile is contagious. I hope everyone knows someone like Johnny, whether as a friend or as a resource.

I find inspiration in unexpected places and become reinvigorated by random people.  Johnny reminded how important my work is to so many people who loved Overhills dearly. Sometimes we underestimate the value of people as research resources, often favoring an actual document over someone’s spoken words. However, what we forget is that a newspaper article was written by a human being just as fallible as the rest of us. Personally, I tend to trust the spoken word over a historic newspaper article.  Comparing historic documents such as bills, telegrams, letters, receipt, etc. to newspaper articles, I have found many inaccurate statements in the articles. If my colleague and I weren’t searching through the Overhills documents, a future researcher could very well believe the inaccurate article over the primary documents. Hopefully our end report and project will correct any misconceptions.

Of course, the stories that people tell could just be stories mixed with fact and fiction. But for all of the otherwise-unknown details that living storytellers provide, from building locations to personal anecdotes and characteristics, to stories about those who have passed, to former road names and lessons about the old ways of occupations, the few inaccuracies are well worth the trouble and confusion. If we are only to rely on research and the “facts” via documented history, then we will find ourselves with an unfortunate gap in history.

People like Johnny help me to remember the importance of community connections and the value of reaching out to find history in unlikely places. And it’s even more fun when they are natural, entertaining storytellers.  Don’t always take the word of a newspaper article. And make sure to listen to and really hear people like Johnny. 

Thank You for Your Service to the United States

Happy Veterans Day to the men and women who have served in the United States Military, whether in active duty, basic training, or in any capacity.  Thank you for your service to our country. And thank you to those of you who will be veterans someday. It is because of all of you that the rest of us live in freedom and not worry about our lives on a day to day basis. I’m sure I speak for the majority of the population when I say that I am eternally grateful and hold you in highest regards. 

Whether you have a relative, a friend, a spouse, a colleague, or anyone you know who has served in the military, please take the few minutes to send them a thank you today. It doesn’t have to be anything extraordinary, but a simple thank you for your service to our country will suffice. It will most likely mean a lot to that person. Forget your view on the war and the government; the soldiers are still protecting our rights as Americans.

Understanding the history of Veteran’s Day will perhaps enhance your appreciation of today. Originally Veterans Day was known as Armistice Day because it is acknowledged that World War I officially ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year, 1918.  From the Department of Veterans Affairs Veterans Day History webpage: 

In November 1919, President Wilson proclaimed November 11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day with the following words: “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…”

In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued a “Veterans Day Proclamation” to establish Armistice Day as a day to recognize all veterans. If you are wondering about the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day, Memorial Day is honoring those who died in battle or those who were wounded in battle and later died. Veterans Day honors the living veterans for their service.

Most of us, if we do not grow up around the military environment, do not have the opportunity to talk to veterans about their experiences or see soldiers and veterans anywhere aside from parades. That was the case for me anyway. Several family members of mine did serve in the military, but I never really talked to any of them about it until I took Professor Stanton’s American Folklore class at Mary Washington. In this class, we had the honor of participating in the Veterans History Project. Students took various routes to finding interviewees for the oral history project. I was fortunate to interview my uncle who served during the Vietnam War. Most people who I know who have served in the military during a war do not spend much time talking about it. The same is true with my relatives. For this reason, I was honored to talk to my uncle, as much for family history as for American history. 

Many of the interviews from the Veterans History Project are available online, including the interview with my uncle, James H. Robb. The interview recording and transcription are available online. I am grateful to Professor Stanton for taking the time and energy to make sure that we did everything correctly in order to officially submit our interviews and transcripts to the Library of Congress. School children of all ages – elementary school to college – can participate in the project. It is an incredible and valuable initiative. 

And most importantly, thank you, Uncle Jimmy, for your service during the Vietnam War. 

Happy Veterans Day.