March 6, 2014

An experiment in oral history

Filed under: found in the archives, interesting or noteworthy archival material — thiscangobacktothearchives @ 5:13 pm

In a folder labeled “Mid-Island YM-YWHA” in the files of Donald Feldstein, there was a short publication called “An Experiment in Oral History,” which documents nine oral histories recorded by Estelle Sirlin as part of a project conducted by the Mid-Island YM & YWHA in 1977.

label for publication, 1977

Label on the back of the “An Experiment in Oral History” publication, 1977

Ms. Sirlin explains, in her introduction to the publication, what an oral history is, why creating oral histories are important and how the Mid-Island Y oral history project began. She writes:

Oral History makes the person important. It is a personal story…a private account of the life and times of an individual. It is so necessary that we record this before these people leave us. And all of the history of their lives and their times will be lost to us…the living…forever.

In previous blog posts, we have discussed our digitization of UJA-Federation of New York’s oral history project. The UJA-Federation project began in 1981 and continued until, at least, 2004, whereas the Mid-Island Y conducted their oral history interviews in 1977. The Mid-Island Y project is an interesting precursor to the UJA-Federation’s oral history program for several reasons.

Cover of publication, 1977

Cover of “An Experiment in Oral History,” 1977

First, the Mid-Island Y project was a pilot program, so the title is not an exaggeration. It is an experiment that apparently took many forms, mostly audio with a tape recorder, but there is also mention of the Board of Jewish Education videotaping two of their oral histories. The UJA-Federation project, to the best of my knowledge, only created audio versions of the oral histories with an accompanying transcript. Interestingly, though, since the span of the UJA-Federation project was much longer, the oral history interviews for some participants were conducted over many years.

Second, unlike the UJA-Federation project that had a transcript made of each oral history interview, Ms. Sirlin created a narrative synopsis for each interview that she conducted. For instance, about her interview of Lillian Teich, she writes “Lillian remembers her life when she was a little girl as being calm and peaceful.” A narrative synopsis can be both good and bad. There is the brevity of such a synopsis and brevity is likely very good when a publication is being made on a limited budget. However, the synopsis will often say just as much about the author of the synopsis as the oral history interviewee, rather than allowing an interviewee to tell their story with their own words, idioms, and pauses. Ms. Sirlin acknowledges the limitations of the narrative synopsis:

The printed versions of the oral histories we have recorded do not tell the entire stories. The sound of a voice, a Yiddish phrase, a laugh or a sigh, these add much to a story. If you are interested in the original tapes and video tapes, please contact the Mid-Island YM & YWHA.

Third, the quote brings attention to another difference between the two projects. Really, this will almost sound like a shameless endorsement for the importance of archival repositories and best practices. The Mid-Island Y oral history interviews were conducted in 1977; the location of the building which housed the Mid-Island Y was in Seaford, New York. From conducting a cursory search online, the Mid-Island Y does not seem to be at that location any longer.  Where are these audio and video tapes associated with this project now?

Wherever the recordings may be for this wonderful experiment in creating oral histories, we do hope that these recordings are safe and sound. If you have any information on where the physical tapes associated with the Mid-Island Y project may be housed now, please let us know and we can pass this information on to any researchers interested in the project.

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