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Briefe True Account

Current SOHP staff Rachel Seidman, Jaycie Vos, Seth Kotch, and Malinda Lowery made their way to Oklahoma City, formerly known as Indian Territory, for the annual meeting of the Oral History Association (OHA), Oct. 9-13, 2013. There we met recent SOHP staff Della Pollack, Beth Millwood, and Jacquelyn Hall and a host of SOHP friends and alums, including current on-campus collaborators Josh Davis, Liz Lundeen, Jessie Wilkerson, Pam Lach, and Laura Clark Brown. Beth was Co-chair of the OHA program committee, and about 75 people honored her and Jacquelyn at a fête Wednesday night, which was organized with the help of OHA’s Executive Director, Cliff Kuhn (who is also an SOHP alum).

Oral history is a multivalent field of inquiry about the past, one which is uniquely committed to rigorous analysis, ongoing examination of core principles, interdisciplinary inquiry, and community engagement. Accomplishing all of these things at once, which oral history actually manages to do, is a complex enterprise that requires collaboration, resources, and a facility with both quantitative and qualitative reasoning.

Unlike scholars in some other fields of research, oral historians do not accept their limitations and are continually pushing their assumptions into new territory. This was most apparent to Malinda in the roundtable she co-facilitated, “Oral History and Social Change,” with the leaders of Columbia University’s oral history program. Rachel proposed questioning the assumptions of the field when she commented on the panel “Women Facing Barriers in Institutional Spaces: The Military, Corporations, and Universities.” She pointed out that while oral history can be used to make a real difference in these important arenas, such a goal sometimes requires asking slightly different questions or presenting our evidence in slightly different ways–we must always question the operating principles of our field even as we remain committed to a reciprocal relationship with our stakeholders.

Jaycie’s paper received more applause than any of us can remember at an academic conference. In a panel chaired by UNC Library’s Laura Clark Brown, Jaycie presented groundbreaking research on the status of content metadata in oral history collections across the country, proving the need for a new metadata standard for archival practice in oral history. Her presentation instantly established her as a leader in oral history research and archival practice, a status which she is using to actively collaborate with researchers from other universities to establish standards the field so desperately needs. Jaycie also attended many panels and participated in roundtable discussions on various legal and ethical issues as well as access and preservation concerns for oral histories once they enter the archive.

After presenting at the popular “So What Do You Do?” workshop and leading the Digital Humanities Interest Group, Seth presented in two panels organized around his major projects. The first combined presentation of research conducted with Josh Davis, on the National Endowment for the Humanities sponsored project, “Media and the Movement” and a proposed reframing of oral history fieldwork around the playful archival principle of “more product less process.” This model emphasizes public engagement with a variety of online tools, keeping contact between interviewees and interviewers alive after the conclusion of the formal interview. He joined Liz Lundeen, Jessie Wilkerson, and Pam Lach to present the “Mapping the Long Women’s Movement” project, a groundbreaking digital presentation, teaching, and research tool developed with UNC’s new Digital Innovation Lab which the audience received with much curiosity and excitement. Both panels demonstrated the large and small ways, all significant, that digital resources are changing oral history practice, on no small account because of the SOHP’s leadership.

Rachel and Malinda both participated in different OHA workshops, half-day sessions run by experts in a particular field of oral history. Rachel attended a workshop on Oral History and the Law, which focused on best practices in ethics and current trends in legal considerations (including copyright, institutional review boards, deeds of gift, and archival restrictions). Malinda’s workshop covered the ongoing concerns of digital preservation for both oral history archivists and researchers.

SOHP alums were presenting research in every time slot, and they were present at every level of OHA leadership. Rachel herself will be on the program committee next year and the education committee for the next three years. The association’s journal editor, as well as nearly a dozen of the leading oral historians and program directors in the country, are SOHP alums – and that’s just the people who were there this year. The authors are hard-pressed to think of any single research unit or department anywhere that had positioned so many people for such prominent careers in a field of history, within this relatively short period of 40 years. We came away re-committed to training undergraduate and graduate students as a top priority; these alums are passionate about oral history because of the transformation they experienced at SOHP, and SOHP’s greatest gift is those alums.

Our interdisciplinary research interests in epistemologies, subject matter, and best practices converged in the many meetings we held throughout the conference, meetings that included representatives of OHA, the Oxford University Press, Palgrave, oral historians from the Ngati Porou people of Aotearoa (aka New Zealand) and the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, archivists from the Queens Memory Project, and the Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries. These meetings solidified our subject-matter commitments to all aspects of social history, U.S. Southern culture, and questions of community-building. We discussed book projects, film projects, and future collaborations to present research at OHA and other venues (including a workshop we are conducting for the Organization of American Historians meeting in Atlanta in April 2014, and a symposium held at UNC with Kings College-London’s digital humanities program).

The response to the “Media and the Movement” and “Mapping the Long Women’s Movement” panels reminded us that SOHP has been and remains on the forefront of digital humanities practice and analysis, and that respected scholars and publishers are deeply interested in learning from us and working with us to develop models for learning, teaching, and researching using oral history in a digital world. We also dialogued with other scholars about models and experiments in engaged scholarship, an area that many people gave SOHP credit for defining. Finally, these networking opportunities resulted in some concrete plans for writing collaborative grant proposals about teaching, multimedia engagement using existing collections, and library cataloging, description, and preservation practices. Our unique and very strong relationship with UNC Libraries remains a standout element of SOHP’s reputation because it presents a model of collaboration over issues, such as preservation and access, that can so easily limit institutions and scholars who engage in oral history.

At #OHA2013, SOHP witnessed our labors bearing fruit and sowed many new seeds for years to come. Follow this link to a Storify timeline of the conference that Jaycie created, which gives more context to our experience:

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