Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Why I Collect Oral History

The other day I collected an oral history from a man nearing his 80th birthday. After recording a portion of his life story I began to think about the process and the justifications for collecting oral histories. Before I go too far, I should include the disclaimer that yes more than a few people see me as a bit unusual. To quote one, former employer, “Mike is an odd little fellow.” So, I can accept the strange looks and uncomfortable laughter when I tell people I collect oral histories as an avocation, something I do simply because I enjoy it.

But, back to the main point, I met with John the other day and after interviewing him, it occurred to me that the clich├ęs that are thrown out about the importance of oral histories are true. The saying, “when a man dies, a library is burned,” or “there is no such thing as a boring life,” these accurately sum up my thinking about collecting oral histories. Every story is important. Every detail is worth telling and saving. More students of local history, family history, and genealogy ought to be encouraged to collect more oral history.

Every man and woman is an interesting story waiting to be unveiled and recorded. The small dramas in our lives; the major decisions we make; and the challenges that we face all make up a lifetime of fascinating history. And these stories need to be recorded and told. John had some interesting stories to tell: about his military service in Korea and his life after the war. He told me about meeting his wife, raising his children, and working hard to provide for them. Although we only spoke for forty-five minutes, this brief live story is a fascinating study in life and well worth the time to record, transcribe and review.

Collecting oral histories is an interesting process. It provides a sense of achievement and satisfaction to both the collector and the subject. This may be something I do in my spare time, and my friends have accepted me as “that odd little fellow.” But the pleasure of the process encourages me to promote the idea that more people should collect oral histories and save family histories through tapes, cd’s and transcriptions. After all, “there is no such thing as a boring life.”

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