From the Chair, Summer 2018

Hello, Oral History Section Members,

The oral history artifact is a fascinating piece of documentary evidence. This year, through my position as chair of the Oral History Section, and through work projects and readings, I came to a deeper understanding of the art and practice of oral history methodologies. 

I reviewed Oral History Theory (2nd Edition) by Lynn Abrams in the Society of Georgia Archivists’ journal, Provenance. In her book, Abrams posits that the oral history is a communication method that is adaptable to individual, environmental, and situational circumstances. Among other things, this flexibility makes the oral history uniquely poised as an authentic record of the narrator’s experience and an implicitly subjective reflection (therefore circumspect in scientific based disciplines) of the described event. 

The documenter’s (interviewer’s) interaction with the creator (interviewee) is another way that the oral history is unique among other records in our archival repositories. Again, this offers both opportunities and challenges when the oral history interview is referenced for academic or scientific purposes. And we haven’t even touched on formats, third party privacy, or access issues. If oral history had a social media account its relationship status would certainly read “It’s Complicated.”   

As we ready for our annual SAA meeting in Washington, D.C., I want to share with you some of the accomplishments that the Oral History Section Officers and Steering Committee members have made since we last gathered as a group. The Steering Committee held quarterly meetings to discuss projects and progress. 

We worked with past leadership of the OHS to close out remaining tasks of the SAA Oral History Project, launched as a way to celebrate the 75th anniversary of SAA. This gave the Steering Committee a platform from which to consider the next iteration of the project. I and the Vice-Chair Adam Mosseri worked on a proposal to SAA Council to fund a continuous oral history project to interview the immediate past president. The proposal has been conditionally approved pending additional details from the Steering Committee. The group also monitored the changes in the application of the IRB rules to oral histories. We will continue to assess our best methods of communication for the group. That includes the potential abolishment of the section’s newsletter in favor of more frequent updates through the discussion list and microsite. 

Our topic for the program portion of this year’s meeting looks at the intersection of art, artifacts, and oral histories. This is a topic that I became familiar with as I embarked on a collaborative project at my home institution. I had the fortune to work with a high-energy team of colleagues from the Georgia Tech Library and Georgia Tech’s Institute for People and Technology on the Everyday Georgia Project. Through the coupling of photographs and narratives, the project shares stories of everyday Georgians, their challenges, and the impact of Georgia Tech research in addressing those challenges. 

The Everyday Georgia Project interviews are also a valuable way to give agency and additional context to the subjects documented in the photographs. The portraits and stories will be showcased during a public exhibition in Fall 2018, and the project will have an online presence through the Georgia Tech Library with support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). I created the project’s interview packet and a presentation on the theory and practices of oral history interviews to the participants and stakeholders. In preparation, I read Oral History and the Visual Arts, edited by Linda Sandino. It was inspiring to learn about the projects in the book and about yet another way that oral history adds value to our cultural heritage.   

Our speakers represent a diverse range of perspectives on the topic. Jennifer Synder is the Oral History Archivist at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. She oversees more than 2,300 interviews, representing the largest collection of recordings about American art anywhere in the world. She will present on recently acquired interviews surrounding visual arts and the AIDS epidemic in New York City. Ann Hoog works for the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress as a folklife specialist. Her portion of the talk will focus on ethnography in unpublished and multi-format works looking at how oral histories not only document but also transmit cultural process. And Kevin Chu joins us from the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in New York. He works extensively with the museum’s audio collection, remastering older recordings, time-coding and transcribing among other responsibilities. He will discuss art installations that were inspired by oral histories in the collection. 

The annual section meeting of the Oral History Section will occur on Wednesday August 15 from 2:30-3:45. The business portion of the meeting will last fifteen minutes. During that time we will announce election results and have mini presentations from a representative of the American Archivist and the Oral History Association’s Metadata Task Force. The featured discussion will begin promptly at 2:45, allowing ample time for the panelists to present on the topic. Time remaining at the end will be devoted to questions and answers for the panelists and Steering Committee members. 

In closing, I want to express my gratitude for the opportunity to serve in this role. I’ve enjoyed working with my colleagues on the Steering Committee. We are all very generous with our time even when that time already has many demands. The work I’ve managed on this committee has stretched my capacity to provide meaningful service to users at my home institution. I look forward to the next year and working with the new crop of OHS leaders. I hope to see many of you at the annual meeting. 


Amanda Pellerin 

Oral History Section Chair 

Access Archivist 

Georgia Institute of Technology