Thursday, September 26, 2019

Tell Me a Story

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

We tend to think of history as being paper-based, but some of the most interesting stories never make it onto the page. Newspaper accounts can’t tell us what it felt like to grow up in the Great Depression or deal with prejudice or fight in a war. A photograph can’t capture all the work and planning which went in to organizing the annual Iszard’s Holiday Parade. Only a conversation can. When it comes to understanding the lived experience of everyday people, oral histories are an invaluable tool.  

On September 6th and 7th, we held a story collection event at EOP. I spoke to five community members about what it was like growing up on Elmira’s Eastside. We also scanned photographs which other community members had brought in. Our plan is to not only use the stories and images in our up-coming exhibit on the Eastside, but also to share them as part of an on-line digital collection. If you, or anyone you known, has images or stories that they’d like to share for either part of the Eastside project, please contact me at (607) 734-4167 ex. 207.

Edna Mae Taylor, Woodrow Aikens, and Boyd Lee Taylor by the old EFA, 1950. Image courtesy of Edna Mae Taylor.
The Chemung County Historical Society recently joined the South Central Regional Library Council and I am super excited about it. SCRLC has all sorts of resources for digitizing collections including training, grants, and equipment. Members can share their digital collections via the New York Heritage website for researchers and educators to use. We already have three collections up on the website thanks to past collaborations with the Steele Memorial Library and the Corning Museum of Glass, but I hope to add more. This autumn, I plan to apply for a grant to digitize and post our oral history collection to New York Heritage so we can better share it with the world.

We currently have over 100 oral history recordings in various formats including audio cassette, VHS, and digital recordings. Topics include, among other things, the history of the local African-American and Asian-American communities; veterans’ experiences in the military; the flood of 1972; and the role Chemung County played in the 1969 moon landings. As I mentioned in an earlier post, in-house digitization of recorded media isn’t too expensive provided you have the right play-back equipment, but it is time consuming. A grant would allow us to digitize everything in one fell swoop without tying up computers or staff. We also have some born-digital material I hope to post in the coming months, whether or not we get the grant. 

Portion of our oral history collection
I once interviewed a woman who was convinced her story wasn’t worth capturing because it had just been her, living her life. That, I explained, was exactly what made it so valuable. I wanted her story of working in a local department store. I want your story of being a student or an activist or a housewife or whatever you are. I want your story because it is unique and valuable and fills in the history of our county. If you want to share it, I want to hear it. Call me. I’m ready to listen.

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