Dilemmas of Oral History

I’ve done oral histories in the past and everything seems to always revolve around the same statement. “…but I don’t have any good stories.” I’ve convinced a few narrators otherwise, but people honestly believe they need to be part of some major event in a major way in order to be historically relevant. One of the points of oral history is documenting every day life for every day people. Good stories as an entity and idea are completely subjective, too (meaning I would probably think you had lots of good stories, even if you didn’t think the same).

Let me give you an example. We learn so much about culture just through stories. I interviewed my own grandmother and although it took some persuading, she told me not to expect much, that she just happened to live through the time period (World War II) that we were collecting. However, her stories brought a vibrancy and a renewed understanding of what life was like for everyday people on the home front. Always the rebellious one, my grandmother recounted how students flooded out of her high school on VJ Day, took a train into New York City, and rejoiced at the news that war was over. This retelling also allowed her to come to terms with the past, with her saying she wouldn’t and didn’t feel so jubilant knowing so many people had died in Japan as a result. In the history books I’ve read, I never heard about students flooding out of school, but to me, that was a great story! I’ve had similar experiences with other narrators as well. There’s something about verbally telling your story that brings a special sort of magic in a way.

“Good stories” are a part of every day life. We want to document what hasn’t previously been documented, and that generally means interviewing people without celebrity. There is so much to be mined from simple storytelling, and the impact it could have on how future generations tell history.


Oral History–The First Day

Ok, so it wasn’t really the first day of oral history, but school is starting soon–bear with me. We had our first interest meeting last night for the oral history project. Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperating at all, there was a school open house, and a bunch of meetings that prohibited people from being able to attend. We did get some attendees and all were very excited about the possibilities of oral history.

I think we’ll probably have another interest meeting and really ramp up our social media posts and more widely distribute flyers. It looks like we’ll have at least a dozen interviewees, which would be an incredible addition to fleshing out how we understand Westerly’s history. The possibilities with oral history are endless!

Oral History Information

When we first were thinking about applying for Studio Rhode, we wanted to gather all the information we could on the arts community. After talking to our Local History Librarian, Nina Wright, we realized that there is not much information available on the arts community in Westerly. In order to fill that gap in knowledge, oral history becomes integral for future generations to understand Westerly and the arts community at large.

Some of the questions we will ask will be what did our arts community look like, what did the library look like, and what arts were people involved in (family ties).  Studio Rhode gives us the best of both worlds, in that we can include people who want to tell their stories, and those who are more comfortable behind the camera.

For more information, contact Kelsey at kmatthews@westerlylibrary.org. Our first informational session is August 29th at 6:30 p.m. We hope to see you there!