Community Knowledge and Active Listening

This week I am spending a lot of time outside of the archive.  The archive is hosting a group of concurrent education students as part of a trial summer institute experience.  The basis for this summer institute is providing an education setting that focuses on experiential learning in relation to Aboriginal heritage and Northern Ontario.  The week includes a few formal lecture type discussions, but for the most part activities are focusing on the real world and engaging with local communities.

Learning outside of a traditional education setting can be extremely rewarding.  It can also be a bit overwhelming for students who have been trained to learn in a lecture or classroom setting.   One of the most important skills that aren’t emphasized in formal education settings is the act of active listening and effective oral communication. 

Listening to someone explain their own past as a formal oral history or in a more casual conversation can be an amazing learning opportunity.  However,  listening passively and not having a feel for the situation and atmosphere of the conversation can limit how much is shared or learned.  Sometimes it is not appropriate to interrupt a speaker to ask questions, other times a conversation where you ask directed questions is completely fine.  Knowing the person who you are speaking to helps a lot, as does reading the setting. 

For example, interrupting a First Nations Elder with questions when they are providing a formal teaching probably isn’t the most appropriate.  Chances are the Elder will ask you if there are questions at the end.  If a question period isn’t part of the session it’s often possible to say thank you to the speak and ask short questions individually at the end of the session.  A good facilitator will explain if questions are appropriate at the beginning, but this doesn’t always happen. 

Yesterday, one of the community members the group visited spoke about the importance of thinking with both your heart and mind and responding to the situation appropriately.  I think the advice is definitely valid.  A lot of academically trained individuals have a hard time expanding beyond traditional school thoughts.  When learning in a less formal more community based setting it is important to step away from purely academic modes of learning and be open to different interpretations and understandings of knowledge. 

Conceptualizing Rural History

Last week a co-worker who is currently reading up on the history of her city asked me if I had ever been interested in the town history of where I grew up.  This simple question had me stumped.  The majority of my life I have lived outside of town, and didn’t readily identify with a closest town.  I had no real town history to speak of.

 I grew up on a concession road, part of a rural township that had very little in terms of central services. The majority of the houses on my road were farms with kilometers of fields separating neighbours. How does one explore a community’s history when the vast majority of area residents live outside of what most people see as traditional community?

Rural communities are not void of history, but often these histories are recorded and remembered in different ways.  Very few rural areas have written historical accounts or a dedicated ‘town’ museum.  Many rural communities once had vibrant churches which recorded much of the area’s history, but with many of these churches closing due to low attendance rates that recorded history is in jeopardy of being lost.

In the case of farming communities there are years of family history tied into the history of the land.  Looking at land registries and deeds of land can tell the story of a family.  For example, the original McCracken homestead owned by my family was traditionally passed down to the eldest son who then carried on the work on the farm.  However, if you look at nearby land records you can see that often the younger sons would buy farm land nearby, and continue to expand the family farm that way.

Stories of barn raisings, helpful neighbours plowing a field when someone’s tractor broke, and calf-cow picnics and many other stories make up the fabric of rural relations.  Oral histories can provide depth to otherwise forgotten relationships and connections.  Rural history definitely exists, one might just have to look beyond published sources to find it.

Small Scale, Big Impact: NYC Taxi Driver Oral History

The January/February issue of the Society of American Archivists’ Archival Outlook featured an interesting piece on the New York City Taxi Driver Oral History Project.  This oral history project was started in 2010 by Samantha Gibson and Margaret Fraser and aimed to record, document, and archive oral history interviews of NYC cab drivers.

Fraser notes that the opinions, experiences, and outlooks of taxi cab drivers are often missing from traditional historical records.  Currently seven full length oral histories and a collection of participant art are available online.   These collections are complemented by an online exhibit. The interviews look at issues such as discrimination, pay, health, crime, etc.  This project is interesting as its oral histories document an often neglect part of NYC history and efforts have been made to make these oral histories fully accessible.

What are some of your favourite oral history initiatives focusing on neglected areas of history? 

Photo credit: M N O’Donnell

Making Oral History Relevant: The Legacy Project

The Legacy Project began in 2004 with Karl Pillemer Professor at Cornell University.  Pillemer began by collecting ‘practical’ advice from elderly people in America by having them answer “What are the most important lessons you have learned over the course of your life?”  This initiative resulted in over 1500 people over 70 years old describing their personal life lessons and experiences.

The main portion of Legacy Project site is a ‘browse by life lesson type’ section.  This portion of the site includes textual transcripts of elders descriptions of important lessons.  The Legacy Project also has a YouTube channel where video versions of the talks with some the elders interviewed can be watched.  I wish the site included more video or audio content, reading the transcripts is interesting but doesn’t provide the same dimension as video.

What initially drew me to this project was no where in it does Karl Pillemer discuss the fact that he is essentially undertaking an oral history project.  Pillmer focused more on the present day applications of the knowledge provided by the interviewed persons.  The appeal from a historical stand point of these  modern day applications of oral history is that they have the potential to almost ‘trick’ the general public into take a glimpse into the past.

Oral History and the Act of Listening

Photo Credit: ky_olsen

The October-November issue of Canada’s History featured an interesting article titled “Guided by Voices” by Mark Abley.  This article focused on the oral history practices, using Concordia University‘s Life Stories of Montrealers Displaces by War, Genocide, and Other Human Rights Violations project.  (A great project that is well worth checking out if you’re interested in oral history, the history of marginalized groups, or just hearing some breathtakingly emotional experiences).

Abley frames the Life Stories project within the large oral history practice and focuses on the benefits and challenges met by those undertaking any type of oral history.  The theme of the article is summed up in the words Abley uses to conclude his writing, “oral history can be a catalyst, not just for academic research, but for reflection, for dialogue, and for political action.”  The nature of the Life Story’s project exemplifies the importance of oral history.  Montreal Life Stories has successfully united university researchers, artists, community partner groups, volunteers, new media professionals, and other interested parties.

Additionally, the project has highlighted how valuable including the human and emotional element in history can be.  Without personal accounts, written or oral, history has the potential to become a bland list of dates and descriptions.  However, oral history is not without its difficulties, there are numerous ethical considerations that must be undertaken prior to beginning an oral history project, especially if that material is to be placed online.  Albey notes, “You’re dealing with living people who trust you.  So our consent forms give layers of choices: They’re not copyright agreements, they’re right-of-use agreements.”  The human aspect of oral history must never be forgotten – communities, traditions, and personal preferences need to respected when undertaking oral history interviews.

Abley’s article helped spur a lot of positive thoughts about oral history practice, but also highlighted the need to carefully consider all facets before one undertakes such a project.

100@100: Profiles of Centenarians

The Current on CBC has an interesting ongoing feature this year, which focuses on centenarians in Canada.  The program 100@100 aims to speak to 100 Canadians over 100 years old in 2011.   The program seems to have slowed down for the summer, but the Current has managed to speak with 29 centenarians so far. So unless the pace picks up greatly I’m not entirely sure the goal of recording 100 centenarians will be met. 

I was initially drawn to this program as it allows people from all walks of life participate in oral history.  The program also presents the memories and stories of the participants in a manner that is reminiscent of a Grandparent sharing experience.  It also emphasizes the importance of recording personal and family histories before all memories are lost.  Overall, its a great program if your interested in Canada’s oral history.

Lessons learned

December 21st’s #reverb10 prompt was:

Future self. Imagine yourself five years from now. What advice would you give your current self for the year ahead? (Bonus: Write a note to yourself 10 years ago. What would you tell your younger self?)

The advice I would give myself for the year ahead is to be open to opportunities and to have faith that things will work out. There is no shortage of ways to expand knowledge and skills if you are open to trying new things and actively searching for new resources.

Advice I would give myself ten years ago: Listen to the interesting stories and personal histories of the elderly people you meet. Very few people write down their personal histories. Oral history is well worth listening to and preserving.

Relevancy and Local History

I work with local history collections on a daily basis and I am constantly surprised by the gems held by small museums and libraries. Over the past eight months some of the more interesting bits of history I have come across include: wartime ration cards, an agricultural society minute book from 1905, land allotment maps, and numerous interesting photographs.

In addition to these visually appealing items I have had the opportunity to be exposed to dozens of local history texts. Many of these local histories were written in celebration of a centennial, or other significant anniversary and are often written by a local community group or a group of volunteers. The quality of writing and research varies greatly from book to book, and very few provide footnotes or bibliographies. Is this a bad thing? From a research perspective it is a shame that more local histories do not include at least a basic bibliography, be it a list of local persons consulted or a more traditional bibliography. The inclusion of sources has the potential to aid later scholarship and is valuable to know in itself.

The academic historian in me does occasionally get the urge to scoff at histories written by enthusiastic community members. However, despite some research shortcomings local history texts are an important resource and are essential for preserving local heritage. Many are well written, compiled by people who are very passionate about their organization or community, and provide a unique look into a community from an ‘insiders’ persepctive.

Much local history is passed down orally. The nature of oral history leaves local history open to the pitfalls of human memory. Writing local history down helps counteract this pitfall. Additionally, many local history collections are filled with unidentifiable photographs, written history has the potential to provide context to images and assist in creating a fuller history.

Why should anyone care about the history of a small rural community? Small communities often have rich and vibrant pasts. Looking at the history of a small community can often illuminate the way in which society, industry, and social interests have evolved over time. Local history can act as a microcosm for examining larger issues such as the impact of industrialization or the link between community growth and the introduction of railroads.

Working with local history collections on a daily basis has reminded me of the importance of ‘amateur’ history in preserving the history of small communities. It has also made me very appreciative of local residents who help heritage institutions identify photographs and share their stories about the community. Community engagement is essential for local history and it makes me happy to see how many people are genuinely interested in local history initiatives.

The medium makes the history

As part of our public history class we will all be conducting an oral history later in the semester. In preparation for our oral history interviews we recently had a class in which we discussed the benefits, practices and pit falls of doing oral history. The impact of actually hearing an oral history vs. reading the transcript of an oral history was mentioned, and for the large part we decided the keeping an oral history in its audio form allowed for a wider range of emotion and information to be evident.

After class I began wondering about the availability of oral histories online. In class someone mentioned the oral interviews of firefighters from 9-11 being avaliable online. I highly recommend that if you are looking to remember those lost that you listen to some of these oral histories, as they are very emotional and expressive.

Similarly, The Voice/Vision Holocaust Survivor Oral History Archive is particularly moving, and includes oral histories from over 130 Holocaust survivors from a variety of locations. The majority of these interviews have both audio and transcripts avaliable online and are down according to contents, so it is possible to listen or read only particular segments. The site, like the firefighter interviews, provides a good example of the impact a medium can have upon the history. The transcripts of the of the Holocaust survivors are broken into questions, and do not resemble the actual conversation and story that is going on in these interviews. By changing the interviews into a written source the interviews lose some of their impact, but conversely the information is much easier to handle and it is easy to search of specific information.

I also came across the Rutgers Oral History Archives of WWII, Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War. These archives feature 470 interviews and provide the personal military details of those being interviewed as well as interview transcripts. the archives are also searchable based on military awards, military branch, college class, and alphabetically. The only downside being that none of these histories are in audio format. The interviews are still valuable as they provide an intimate look into various wars, however the lack of audio makes the interviews seem less emotional than those of the Holocaust survivors or firefighters.

The Oral History Museum site is also worth noting. The Oral History Museum was established in connection with the Multicultural History Society of Ontario, and contains over 9,000 hours of recorded oral history. The disappointing part being that none of this extensive collection is avaliable online, and the site makes no mention of digitizing these interviews and making them accessible online.


I recently was exposed to [murmur] which is kind of oral history documentary project. Essentially the project collects and makes accessible personal stories about specific locations. The project is a neat combination of technology and traditional oral history. The murmur project exists in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Dublin, Edinburgh, Galway and San Jose . When a person is at a murmur location they can dial a number on their cell and begin to listen to various personal histories and memories associated with the location. Individuals also have the option of adding their own personal story about the location to the murmur archive. Additionally all the oral stories are avaliable on the [murmur] website for those who may not have the option of actually visiting the physical locations.

One of the things I found most appealing about this project is that a lot of the murmur locations are places that may not be considered overly historical, but still have personal and community histories attached to them. This demonstrates the extent to which history exists in the community at large and in places accessible to the large majority of people. Murmur seems like an engaging way to promote and collect local histories, while exploring the ways in which individuals interpret history and the world around them.