Telling stories, preserving traditions
[Laura Moran is a librarian at the Western Sullivan Public Library, where she oversees the library’s oral history project and offers training to people interested in learning how to conduct oral-history interviews. The next training session will be held on Wednesday, December 18 at 4:30 p.m. at the Jeffersonville Branch at 19 Center St., Jeffersonville. For Moran, recorded oral histories are collaborations among the interviewer, the interviewee and a third, yet-to-be-determined person of the future who will one day listen to the recording. She calls oral history “the raw material for historians.” The River Reporter (TRR) asked Moran to talk about oral history starting with some thoughts appropriate to the holiday season.]
TRR: Keeping long-standing family traditions is sometimes hard to do in our modern world. Traditions get lost or fall away—Grandma’s recipe for potato pancakes, the tradition of cutting down your own Christmas tree. During this holiday season, what kinds of things might an oral historian want to ask about during his time of year?
MORAN: Traditions. How did we celebrate 100 years ago, 50 years ago, 20 years ago? What is the same, what is different. If different, how so? If the same, how did those traditions manage to survive? Learning not only the traditions, but also how to preserve them helps to carry those traditions into the future.
TRR: What long-standing traditions does your family have during the holiday season? And what does your family to do make sure they are passed on?
MORAN: My immediate family is small and loves to get together—yet we are so far apart. When we do manage to travel, we always relive our family myths. We are the only ones who know them and it is comforting to laugh and cry with others who lived through the same things. As the years pass and events fade, they also change. The very act of remembrance changes the way we remember. We try to keep alive the memory of those who have passed on—like my grandmother, Helen Nicholas, whose repartee was lighting quick, whose storytelling opened my imagination at a very early age. We tell her stories and stories of her to her grandchildren. I wish that I had recorded her before she passed on…
TRR: What are a couple of examples (great stories you’ve come across) conducting oral history interviews yourself?
MORAN: At Western Sullivan Public Library (WSPL), our “small army” of interviewers have “caught stories” from long-standing members of our Delaware River community—from Hancock down to Barryville. One older gentleman in a nursing home claimed he did not have any “relationship” to the river—yet, when given time to tell his story, he relived meeting his wife for the first time in the 1940s—she was wearing a “red two-piece” [bathing suit] and was “knee high in the river near the Narrowsburg Flats.” That small detail became a beacon for the interviewers who volunteered their time to collect the history of their area—it represented the valuable way that storytelling delicately and surprisingly reveals our connection to where we live. Oral histories tell of more than facts and figures; they tell our love stories, our joys and mournings, our passions, our feuds, our roles in innovation and conservation. Also, there is a great interview with Earl Campfield, eeler extraordinaire. His passion for the river and the creatures inhabiting it is so evident from the recording, and his knowledge of eels is amazing. He can make anyone excited about getting out in the Delaware River.
TRR: If a family is interested in starting an oral history project of their own, where should they start? How hard would it be to become a family’s oral historian?
MORAN: OH! It is very easy! New technology has allowed easy access and excellent replication of recordings. You can start by contacting me (firstname.lastname@example.org) at the WSPL. In the past three years, we have offered oral history training sessions for free. Our three branches in Callicoon, Narrowsburg and Jeffersonville have easy-to-use digital recorders that you can check out like a book for two weeks. I can show anyone how to use them.
TRR: What does a family gain when someone starts recording the memories or keeping a record of stories told by the older generation(s) of a family? Why might this be important to a family?
MORAN: Often, people wonder why they are being interviewed—“I’m no expert.” But that in itself is a very powerful reason to capture a recording; oral histories collect memory and experience, a day-to-day cataloging of life the way we live it. We all have stories that connect us not only to our families, but to our community, too. A collection of recordings also creates a body of knowledge; many recordings by one person and recordings by many townspeople give a fuller perspective on a particular event or time. We also capture “vernacular,” a fancy word for the particular ways different regions speak. Every place has its own music and imagery in its language. Many recordings allow us to hear more clearly what our word-music sounds like. Many recordings over time, also show us how things change, give us a deeper knowledge of what lies beneath the surface. (That’s why we called the WSPL’s oral history program “Unearthed.”)
TRR: What can families do (or what DO families do) with oral histories once the stories have been recorded? How do they share them, who do they share them with?
MORAN: Families add the recordings to scrapbooks, or use them with digital photo frames and slideshows. Recordings can be long or short, serious or fun. Short, fun recordings make great low-cost audio cards for birthdays and holidays. Oral histories of older family members are great gifts to younger generations, and oral histories of younger members are great gifts for older generations, too!! They can be uploaded and shared on family websites. And–don’t forget–local historical societies are very interested in them as a record of place and time, as are genealogists. I do think though that beyond a physical, tangible gift, oral histories create or renew relationships. That is one of the things our training includes. Oral history recordings are not just objects; they are a record of time spent together, face to face, asking questions about our experiences and lives. Always, people come away changed from an interview. Connections have been made.