One of the joys of remote technology is the ability it gives us to tap into international events – ones we could only otherwise dream of attending. In May this year I participated in an oral history training programme run in Washington DC, part of the DC Oral History Project. A collaboration of the Historical Society of Washington DC, Humanities DC and the DC Public Library, the Project seeks to preserve the unrecorded histories of the people and culture of Washington DC through a database of stories and memories created by its people.
At the time, Melbourne was struggling to rebuild city momentum, and Sally Capp was trying to drum up energy through entertainment-based cash incentives. In contrast, Washington DC was building a rich cultural resource of community stories and offering free training to locals interested in contributing. Curious to learn how a city-wide oral history project might work, I registered to join the programme and was privileged to be welcomed along.
DC Project convener Jasper Collier explained the purpose and workings of the initiative: to train ordinary DC citizens in the practice of oral history, then provide grants to support their fieldwork collecting local community stories. The resulting archive – a rich collection of oral stories of the people created by the people.
The experience of participating in the programme stretched my sphere of knowledge of what it means to “make” oral history and kindled a feeling of warm solidarity with those who share both the vigour and delight of capturing authentic life stories.
Led by expert oral historian Dr Anna Kaplan, the programme comprised three highly comprehensive and provocative online sessions covering the ethics and craft of oral history, conventions of documenting, permissions, and archiving, as well as how to approach potential narrators and develop a project plan. The three two-hour sessions ran over three weeks, augmented by substantial set readings and homework.
Being part of the DC-based oral history group was a window into a myriad of worlds other to my own. The workshop participants were an eclectic mix of film makers, journalists, librarians, and community members (mostly women) from diverse ethnic backgrounds whose stories of and about Washington DC spoke to histories of race, immigration, changing neighbourhoods, families, and communities. I was struck by the richness of local knowledge, something we might take for granted in our own communities but stood out to me here as an outsider. It also reinforced one of Anna Kaplan’s tips for interview preparation: thoroughly research your narrator’s community and neighbourhood so you are familiar with the local folklore!
A recurring theme of the sessions was the responsibility of oral historians to value and protect their narrators. Ensuring a narrator feels safe in the interview space, has control over the interview material and is sharing their life story voluntarily were highlighted as crucial duties. Understanding the narrator’s purpose in sharing their story and making space for that purpose alongside your own was emphasised.
The participants showed a great sense of humility in the way they positioned themselves in the interviewer-narrator relationship. They were concerned about the handling of sensitive subjects and the possibility of triggering trauma in their interviewees. I was reminded that both parties in the interview relationship are human.
Collecting the stories of a city sounds ambitious but a city is a sum of its parts, and at the heart of each part are communities. The Washington DC residents I met came from different neighbourhoods and cultures, communities and micro-communities, groups and families, each with a unique history and local story. Their diverse perspectives and experiences will no doubt inform the work they do as oral historians, opening small windows so that others may see a bigger world. Listening to their DC lives I was reminded that it is a privilege to hear the experiences of others, and even brief encounters can hold a magic that inspires us to continue our work.