Oral History: hearing the stories that haven’t been told 

By Contributing Writer Max Dean White

History is the study of the past events. We study history to understand the causes and effects of situations that have already happened in the hopes that we learn from them by repeating the good decisions and preventing mistakes from reoccurring. When we study history, we assess the decisions made by those who played a significant role in their respective time period, most often these are the heads of state, activists or business innovators.  

In doing so, we tend to forget about what can be learned from hearing other people’s stories today. Everyone has a story of their own history, and this can be valuable information for the study of history in the future. The more we can learn about someone’s history today, the more understood this period of history will be. This practice of recording the experiences people face today, especially from those in marginalized communities is called “Oral History”.   

This past Tuesday, Oral History Scholar Rob Widell joined civil rights activist Gloria Clark in a discussion about the methods that can be used to record the stories of today. This seminar introduced the methods that these experts have used in an effort to collect and build awareness about the struggles of women, people of color, workers, LGBTQ, immigrant activists, and others.  

 Rob Widell is originally from Alabama and moved to Fall River when his wife received a job in the area after they both completed graduate school. In his career, Widell has conducted over 50 interviews and has developed techniques to become more effective in getting people to tell their history.  

 Gloria Clark was born in New Bedford and took an interest in being an activist during the civil rights movement of the late 1960s. Frequently traveling between Massachusetts and Mississippi protesting government stances on civil rights issues of the day, Clark became a leader among activists. 

 Both experts offer advice on how to have a more productive interview with anyone in order to learn more about that person, and in turn offer more to future historians.  

 They began to argue that in today’s age of communication, through instant messaging systems, documentation of interactions between people are becoming increasingly challenging to find. As a result, the art of storytelling is dying. Meaning that there will likely be more reading of history textbooks about this time period, rather than personal accounts and anecdotal information from people alive in 2019.  

 Oral history offers future academics more accurate information about the events that happened as they happened, due to the people being interviewed living in the time they are describing. Widell made a point to show that what usually happens is that when interviewed many years after the period being asked about, people tend to exaggerate the story to make themselves look better. Even more limiting is that people remember the event less when asked about it in the future.  

 People naturally love to talk about themselves, which is why it is so valuable to capture the moment in a person’s role in their own respective community in this part of history.  

 Other techniques suggested by the experts is to be upfront with the person being asked about how you intend on using the information they will provide, and to make sure that all equipment for the interview is properly working beforehand. This will ensure that the interview will be based on trust and comfort. 

 The experts demonstrated that the archives found on campus, like all other archives contain much more than just books and papers. They contain a seemingly endless supply of documents from the past detailing those events as they happened. It is important that we do not forget the value that these documents like interviews provide to the future years, and that we appreciate the work being done my Oral Historians like Rob Widell, Gloria Clark, and so many others.   


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