The academic year is almost at its end, but the work of the Southern Oral History Program keeps its steady pace. In January, I began as a field scholar mostly clueless about the project on which I was working. Now, after a few months gaining perspective in the workroom, I anticipate a summer spent collecting oral histories for the “Black Roads” project.
Though eager to get out into the field, I am glad to have spent months working on better understanding the importance of the Southern Oral History Program. I have edited new transcripts and listened to many oral histories while simultaneously planning for summer fieldwork. My plans for this summer with Dr. Seth Kotch are shaped by the quality of the oral histories in the collections. We hope to expand the digital humanities aspect of the Program by video-recording onsite interviews for a web component in addition to collecting traditional oral histories. As we investigate issues of race and space in rural North Carolina, we consult an advisory board of transportation scholars, geographers, and noted experts of the rural south. With much excitement surrounding the project, I question the impact our efforts will have on the communities and people with which we work.
As a social scientist, I am concerned with improving the communities I research. Just a few weeks ago, I attended a brown bag presentation at the Institute for African American Research where my concern was substantiated. Leaders of the presentation reported that communities and individuals in them often feel let down by academics who come in and leave without giving anything (whether it be a gift card or a relationship) to the people being researched. As I sat in on the discussion that followed the presentation, I considered what I could do to in interest of having people who I interview feel good about working with me.
After listening to oral histories here at the SOHP, I realize that for many, the opportunity to share stories and have others listen may be of unquantifiable importance. The value that sharing has is noticed, and unfortunately, the SOHP often has to turn down solicitations for oral history projects due to a lack of time and resources.
As I get closer to going into the field, I hope to be mindful of how I operate as a researcher concerned with doing good. However, I will also be mindful of how great it can feel to to have your story recorded and shared.
The quality and quantity of oral histories in the SOHP’s collections is among the best in the world, however it is not only the collection that distinguishes the SOHP, but the ways in which those histories are shared. During his presentation at the SOHP’s 40th Anniversary, Dr. Seth Kotch said a major challenge facing oral historians is that nobody listens to interviews, a statement that resonated with many interviewers in the audience. Last week, at the 40th Anniversary Celebration of the SOHP, students and faculty displayed the diverse ways the SOHP shares oral history. The afternoon’s agenda appeared to be a reaction to the harsh truth that many oral histories are not played after being archived. The celebration featured a performance from previous undergraduate interns about the North Carolina Speaker Ban, a sound booth to listen to SOHP clips, a presentation of the Media and the Movement blog by Joshua Davis and Seth Kotch, a panel with former interviewees and interviewers, and a walking tour of campus featuring UNC’s History of Student Activism. As the festivities came to an end, I left Wilson Library with a feeling of defiant optimism, as if the SOHP and scholars like me and my fellow interns could change the reality that oral histories are often overlooked and underused.
There has never been a better time for oral history to be shared and accessed throughout the world than now, with technology opening new doors for interviewers and librarians to archive interviews. The challenge now facing scholars is to adapt their work to share in new ways, which means welcoming multi-media formats like blogs and mobile applications. Scholars in the Digital Humanities have boldly faced this challenge by using new formats in connection with or in lieu of a traditional printed book. Seth Kotch said that when using a public blog there is always a danger in sharing work before it is in a full, publishable form, but the reward of sharing the scholarship with a larger community counters the risk. A research blog creates the chance to share work with people who would not normally be exposed to a larger academic work. In addition to blogs, other multi-media devices are being used to present oral history in contemporary ways. For instance, the listening booth at the 40th Anniversary Celebration featured thematically arranged SoundCloud playlists and posters for SOHP events feature QR codes, which link guests with mobile phones to websites or applications.
As the undergraduate Support Intern at the SOHP this semester, I had the pleasure of inheriting the concept of an audio walking tour. The idea behind the tour was to use clips from our collection that connect to the history of UNC’s campus. After many hours exploring oral histories online I found several clips that stood out and a natural theme emerged, which was “UNC’s History of Student Activism.” Link to the SoundCloud playlist for the tour. The walking tour was a perfect opportunity to share oral history in a new way, so the clips had to be exemplary of the quality of interviews at the SOHP while also touching on compelling histories that are often underappreciated. The tour features interviews dating back to the SOHP’s founding in the 1970s with a clip from interviewer Genna Rae McNeil and up until the present with a clip from recent undergraduate interviewer Charlotte Fryar. Playing these clips in places intimately related to the interviewee conveys the reality of the interviewee’s life and situates the audience in a space to reflect on how the interviewee’s past differs from the present. Normally the deck of Spencer Dormitory is a peaceful spot to sit in a rocking chair and enjoy a nice day, but the space is transformed when you hear Sharon Rose Powell’s story about living in Spencer during the time of in loco parentis rules, when a woman could be expelled for having a guest or violating a dress code. Suddenly, the audience is reminded of how the University is not always a safe space and hearing Powell’s story is an intimation of what it was like to be a female UNC student during the ‘60s.
Undergraduate Interns Aaron Hayworth and Coco Wilder lead guests on the Audio Tour
It is my hope that projects like the walking tour will shape the way scholars and friends of the SOHP relate to and use oral history. The SOHP has printed maps of the walking tour available to guests of the Center for the Study of the American South, which feature QR codes linking to the SoundCloud clips for guests to take a self-guided audio tour of campus. In the coming months the SOHP is also working to turn this tour into a podcast for people around the world to experience, making oral history more accessible than ever before!