Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Warwick Historical Society's Oral History Archive Project

What are oral histories, and what is the oral history archive project? Simply, the oral history archive project involves finding individuals with stories to tell about life in Warwick, interviewing them, and, in the process, recording the stories and details that unfold. Often this storytelling process is inspired by photographs, and this project will be specifically linked to an effort to get community members to share photographs from the community’s past for the sake of digitally scanning them to be preserved in our archive; the original images will be retained, unless donated, by the participants.

A successful oral history interview is one that seeks a specific goal rather than depends on happenstance. In order to prepare to do an interview of an individual it would first be necessary to do some research about them. Additionally, the interviewer should speak to the interviewee before a formal session is arranged, and this might be done over the phone. In my experience, information about the interviewee might come through an acquaintance, friend, or relative of the sought after individual. In one instance, mention of a sought after individual mentioned in a poll tax entrée in a 1941 annual report from a municipality served as my only information to inspire conversation. Mentioning details from this document reminded the interviewee of the year before entering military service which included participating in one of the last ice harvests of a local commercial ice company.

Other publically accessible government documents might also be consulted to prepare for interviews. Dates of birth, relatives, resident addresses, occupations, and other like information accessed through census, voting, probate, legal, and other information found in municipal archive sources; genealogical records are sometimes housed in municipal spaces, as is the case of the Orange County Genealogical Society located in the 1841 Courthouse Building in Goshen, NY.

Another aim of this project is to make living connections with material culture and structures in the collection of the Historical Society of the Town of Warwick as well as instances of daily lives, occupations, and community happenings. As this organization seeks to both collect and preserve narratives about this past century, the 20th, the oral history project particularly solves the many problems associated with taking on the responsibility of preserving the entire history of a community rather than any one particular period in its history. Unlike the organization’s considerable collection of 18th century and early 19th century material culture, this project will not require period buildings and/or storage for the purpose of preserving it. Oral histories and digital scans of related photographs can be almost exclusively stored on one external hard drive.

Such an oral history resource will assist in scholarly research as well as the future and continued use of a working collection of tools and equipment for hands-on learning of traditional arts and skills from the occupations, trades, and light industries of the Town of Warwick’s history. It is recognized that such a collection will ultimately serve as a reference resource for those seeking to imitate and possibly apply the use of these tools and equipment, skills, and know-how to their own contemporary lives beyond the museum site.

Oral histories associated particularly with both civilian and military life during the Second World War will be a starting point to the goal of creating a more comprehensive collection of oral histories that serve to preserve the Town of Warwick’s long-standing cultural diversity and heritage. The museum’s own collection would be of central importance to this primary source information gathering, but beyond that many with first-hand knowledge of similar objects, their uses, and their personal experiences have come to be known by the museum on a continued and frequent informal basis as these individuals have sought connection with the Historical Society. These experiences will be recorded as well.

Realizing that these narratives of historical significance are destined to be lost soon, the creation of an oral history archive is underway; it is anticipated that this project will not only preserve the stories of a passing generation but that it will also facilitate many intergenerational experiences between students and senior interviewees. The oral history project will not focus exclusively on an older generation, for it is understood that residents of all ages may be participants. This inclusivity will result in a greater sampling of citizens from the community rather than those who have survived amongst their contemporaries to tell their story from a particular generation.

To insure dissemination of these recorded digital oral histories, space will eventually be provided on the museum’s website to upload them as they are created to provide greater accessibility. The unloaded “histories” will be excerpts from larger recordings highlighting points of obvious interest to the public. The most labor intensive part of this project, and a standard practice of this type of information resource gathering, will be the print transcription of the recorded oral histories. Volunteers will be sought in order to accomplish this task.

The Historical Society has recently received funds to purchase some ZOOM Handy Recorder H2 digital recorders with USB connectivity and a USB cable for uploading. A portable external hard drive for storage is also essential to store the anticipated large digital audio files and their eventual word-document transcriptions. A laptop computer capable of processing and uploading large digital audio files from digital recorders as well as to serve in the process of uploading digital audio files to the museum’s website is necessitated. A free download of digital audio editing software, Audacity, is available for PC users, and this will be utilized for this oral history project.

Volunteers interested in participating in this oral history project should contact us at: or 845-986-3236.

No comments:

Post a Comment