Celebrating American Archives Month: October 2013

Meet Special Collections Librarian/Oral Historian Kelly Navies
Celebrating American Archives Month
Oct. 1-31, 2013
American Archives Month
Imagine yourself at a social meet and greet. You introduce yourself to a friendly stranger and innocently ask, What do you do for a living?" The friendly stranger replies with enthusiasm, "I’m a Special Collections Librarian/Oral Historian!" Okay... You’re familiar with the occupation of a librarian, but you’re completely oblivious to what exactly an oral historian does!


Meet DC Public Library's Special Collections Librarian and Oral Historian Kelly Navies.
Kelly Navies photoSo Kelly, please answer the burning questions that are on our readers' minds: “What is Oral History?” and “What does an oral historian do?”
Oral History is a method of collecting, preserving and interpreting the stories, memories and voices of people and/or communities who were participants in eras or events of historical import. Therefore, an oral historian is someone who collects and records interviews with individuals or groups for the purposes of preserving their stories and voices for future researchers.

In addition, oral historians also analyze and interpret the interviews they gather in various ways, such as keeping field notes of their experience or comparing their interviews to other similar oral history projects.

Finally, oral historians create logs and/or transcripts of their interviews to make it easier for researchers to access specific information in the material.
 
Is it true that oral historians are only interested in the stories of those who have a significant historical background or people of a higher social status such as the rich and famous?
No. In fact, oral history evolved from a need to document history from the perspective of ordinary folks, those whose stories had often been overlooked by traditional history, such as the working class, women and ethnic and racial minorities.

Nowadays, people from all walks of life are the focus of oral history projects.
 
What are some of the steps that oral historians take to prepare for an interview?
Oral historians conduct thorough research prior to each interview to become deeply familiar with the topic of study. This includes reading relevant material, visiting historical sites, conducting preliminary interviews, studying maps and more.

Give the readers out there an example or two of some of the questions that are asked during an oral history interview.
The questions I ask vary from interview to interview depending on the topic and the individual being interviewed, but I generally start each interview with the following simple questions:

  • Can you state your full name?
  • When and where were you born?

Currently, I am conducting interviews with folks who attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Here is a sample of a few of the questions I ask during these interviews:

  • How did you first hear about the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom?
  • At the time, what did you understand to be the primary goals of the March?
  • Why did you decide to go?
  • Can you describe what you saw when you first arrived on the National Mall on that day in 1963?
  • What are your most vivid memories of the day?

Now, the wording and order of these questions varies with each interview, but essentially I try to get  each individual to answer in as much detail as possible.
 
Hmmm…sounds really interesting Kelly! Now, if there is a reader out there who’s interested in becoming an oral historian, what advice would you give them?

  • Start paying attention to the elders around you and the many stories they have.
  • Work on your listening skills.
  • Read widely in various historical topics to determine where your particular interest lies.
  • Check out the website for the Oral History Association, which provides information regarding resources and training and links to many other related sites. Then develop your skills by interviewing people you are familiar with, like family and close friends.

Have you ever asked your parents and/or grandparents about their life stories? You will be surprised what you’ll find. Once you get started, you might get hooked, like I did. Everyone has a story to tell.

Thank you for your time Kelly.