Oral Histories

By emolina3

I recently visited the Brooklyn Historical Society to conduct an interview with Brett Dion, whose official title is Oral History Project Archivist. Dion received his library science degree from Pratt, and began working at the New York Transit Museum during his final semester in school. He was there for seven years, at first in the archives and then as a registrar (which involved maintenance of the collection and loan paperwork). During his last couple of years at the Transit Museum, Dion began taking workshops at the New York Writers Coalition, and ended up volunteering with StoryCorps. As Dion describes, StoryCorps is a mutated version of oral history, because of the editing and streamlining process: often, when relating a story, people jump around and meander along in the telling. While from the oral history perspective, the narration should be left in its original state, StoryCorps condenses and edits to create a more straightforward version.

When Dion heard of an opening at the Brooklyn Historical Society in the oral history department last October, he jumped at the chance to interview. He wanted to expand his experience in collections, as he had never worked with audio recordings before. He was hired to stay on for two grant-financed projects; he is still working on the first, which must be 70% complete by this upcoming spring in order for the funding to continue. Much of the work done to preserve or archive collections at BHS is funded by grants, so much so that there is a staff member whose sole job is to apply for funds and write proposals. The project Dion is working on now is with legacy oral histories, which date back to 1973 and are stored on audio cassette. He is digitizing, doing conservation work for the tapes that are falling apart, and making the histories more available than they’ve ever been before. Using a system called the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS), developed at the University of Kentucky libraries, Dion will put them online and make them accessible in a novel way: the audio will be synched with the transcripts. When uploading an MP3 and a file of the transcript, it is possible to lock them in place and match up the words that occur at every one-minute mark. This entails Dion (or one of his two interns) listening to each oral history within the system. At every fifty second mark, a bell goes off to tell the listener to pay attention; another bell goes off at sixty seconds, which is when Dion or the intern must highlight the word that is being spoken at that exact time. It then jumps to the next fifty second mark, and so on. Dion says that after an adjustment period, the process can go pretty quickly. Before matching up the audio, there must first be an evaluation of the transcripts themselves, which were created when the histories were recorded, back in the 1970s and 80s. Dion and his interns listen to each recording while carefully going over the accompanying transcript, to make sure that the initial transcription was accurate, and to correct any misspellings. Often the narrators of the histories will share their birthdate, but that information must be bleeped out, as a protection against identity theft. The Oral Historian at BHS, Zaheer Ali, wants the year to be left in, so that listeners can have context about what was happening in the world at the time, so only the day and month are removed (in both the transcripts and the audio).

The tapes are composed of sixty-seven interviews (starting in 1973) of Puerto Ricans, most of whom were born in the 1880s, and emigrated to Brooklyn in the 1920s and 30s. As a result, many were trying to get jobs just as the Great Depression was hitting; not only did they have this going against them, but they were very badly mistreated by other immigrants at the time. Dion says the tapes have survived remarkably well, but that as he is doing the transcription and audio work, he is often struck by the scripted quality of the interviews. He notes that it seems clear the interviewers have some purpose in mind, and are guiding the narrators to tell a specific story. This, of course, made me think of “The Ethics of Fieldwork,” by PERCS, and how one of their specifications is to not ask leading questions (p. 6). I was not able to hear the recordings Dion has been working on, but his description led me to believe that the interviewers at the time were not being as ethical as one may have hoped (of course, at that time, the ethics of fieldwork were much less defined than they are now). We can also only hope that the participants were not chosen to be interviewed because they were seen as “exemplified or erotic,” (p.8) and that it was simply because they were new residents of Brooklyn. Zaheer Ali’s philosophy is much more within the ethical framework PERCS lays out: he usually has a certain theme in mind, which dictates who he conducts the interviews with, but his strategy consists of letting those he speaks with tell him about their lives in whichever way they choose. One such theme revolves around the neighborhood of Crown Heights; in 1991, a riot broke out between the Hasidic Jews and African Americans who lived there. Fatalities occurred, followed by days of violence and unrest. BHS went to the area two years later, to find out how people were healing and recovering. As it is now the 25th anniversary of those riots, BHS is collecting new oral histories, and making the 1993 recordings available to the public.

I see oral histories as giving voice to those who are not always heard, and undermining what Kincheloe and McLaren describe as discursive practices, which they write are “defined as a set of tacit rules that regulate what can and cannot be said; who can speak with the blessings of authority and who must listen; and whose social constructions are valid and whose are erroneous and unimportant” (2002, p. 94). This might be a romanticized view, as the decision of who to interview and why is up to the organization collecting the oral histories; as a result, one person (or, more likely, a committee) is deciding who is worth interviewing. This means that many groups who may greatly benefit from being heard may never get that chance.


Elon University. Program for Ethnographic Research & Community Studies. The ethics of fieldwork module. Retrieved from http://www.elon.edu/docs/e-web/org/ percs/EthicsModuleforWeb.pdf

Kincheloe, J. L. & McLaren, P. (2002). Rethinking critical theory and qualitative research. In Y. Zou & E. T. Trueba (Eds.), Ethnography and schools: Qualitative approaches to the study of education (87-127). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

The following two tabs change content below.


Latest posts by emolina3 (see all)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License

WordPress theme based on Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.