Learning to conduct Oral History interviews

LEWISTON- “Oral histories are like human sponges,” said Molly Graham when she expertly led a workshop on Saturday, January 11, at the University of Southern Maine Lewiston Auburn College, sponsored by the Franco-American Collection. “Oral histories collect the sensory experiences about events that we cannot absorb in data alone.”  Therefore, it is urgent to collect oral histories, because the witnesses to events have special experiences and their memories must be recorded before it becomes too late to do so.

Sponsored by the Franco-American Collection.

Molly Graham led the workshop at the University of Southern Maine Lewiston Auburn College on January 11, 2020, sponsored by the Franco-American Collection.

In fact, the Franco-American Collection (FAC) at USM LAC has been collecting oral histories for several years from veterans and local citizens. By sponsoring the Molly Graham workshop, the FAC Board welcomed the opportunity to learn about how to maximize the benefit of the verbal treasure trove available in video,, and audio recordings and to implement best practices to improve on future collections.

Excellent handouts and overhead slides with interesting oral history audio clips accompanied Graham’s half day, four hour, workshop. Several audio clips included a short recordings from one Jewish Holocaust survivor and another told by the daughter of an Auschwitz Concentration Camp survivor. A survivor of The Killing Fields in Cambodia was among the recordings and included in the presentation.

What is Oral History?  This methodology for collecting data is defined by the Oral History Association as a way of recording and preserving the oral testimony and to preserve the product of that process. The history begins with an audio or video recording with a first person account given by an interviewer with an interviewee or narrators.  The purpose of an oral history is to create a permanent record about an understanding of the past.  A verbal document of the oral history resulting from the process is made available in different forms to other users, researchers and to the public.

Moly Graham pictured center with Karen Richard (left) and FAC Board member Andrea Quaid

Oral History workshop attendees with Molly Graham, presenter (center) were Karen Richard (left) and Andrea Quaid, a Board member and Vice Chair of the Franco-American Collection.

What makes oral history different from documented narratives printed in books or recreated in films?  Graham highlighted a quote by Allesandro Portelii, the Italian scholar of culture and an oral historian. “One of the two things that distinguish oral history from other disciplines is the search for a connection between biography and history, between individual experiences and the transformations of society.”  In other words, oral histories connect periods of time by bringing past memories into the present. For example, oral histories can capture rare dialects and the use of antiquated languages used in ordinary conversations.  What is read in history books sound a lot different when expressed through the voice of an oral historian’s memory about special situations and historic events.  An oral history interview is an opportunity to travel back in time with a narrator and an interviewee, and to bring an experience back to life for the purpose of educating the public and future scholars who did not live the described history, but who can better understand it through the recorded account.

For example, the oral history from a survivor of the Cambodian genocide by the Khmer Rouge, known as “The Killing Fields”, was a particularly compelling recording. This section of Graham’s workshop was of special interest to me because my husband and I have been to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, where the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields memorial are located.  In the audio clip. a survivor of the genocide spoke about how the prisoners were starved while still being required to do hard labor. The woman interviewee gave an oral description about how she just barely managed to survive by eating whatever she saw other animals eat, like consuming frogs and eating plants.

The Killing Fields prison in Phon Penh

Phnom Penh Cambodia Tuol Sleng prison and museum. (L’Heureux photograph)

Currently at the Franco-American Collection, the Board are engaged in digitizing the oral histories from prominent Lewiston families who were among those who provided essential business services to the waves of French-Canadian immigrants who arrived by train in the 18th and early 20th centuries, to fill jobs at the Androscoggin River’s industrial mills. Doris Bonneau is chair of the exhibit committee and Anna Faherty, the archives special project archivist, are leading this project.  Among the families included in the oral histories are Leblanc, LePage, Bonneau and Marcotte.  Other Franco-American business families will be invited to participate in a proposed subsequent exhibit. “Notre Pain Quodien: Franco American Entrepreneurs, Sustaining Community ” will focus on the families and their oral histories. The exhibit is scheduled to open in March 2020. Check the website for updated information:  https://usm.maine.edu/franco-american-collection

More information about Molly Graham is available at Voices Oral History Archives at voices@noaa.gov and voices.nmfs.noaa.gov



Juliana L'Heureux

About Juliana L'Heureux

Juliana L’Heureux is a free lance writer who publishes news, blogs and articles about Franco-Americans and the French culture. She has written about the culture in weekly and bi-weekly articles, for the past 27 years.