Thursday, April 10, 2014

Rachel's Quick and Dirty Oral History Tips

A lot of the posts on this blog have covered our reactions to individual interviews, but we haven't really talked much about the process itself. In light of that, here's a brief how-to guide for the aspiring oral historian:

  1.  Come prepared! Do your research and make sure you know what you're talking about. I usually aim for having some knowledge of the historical context--the public history--as well as a little bit about the person themself--the private history. But also be careful to avoid thinking that your research makes you the expert. Remember, you're here to learn from people who speak from experience, so let them talk! Also make sure to have any legal documents or release forms prepared, and be able to explain them. And, of course, being prepared means having your equipment (and backups!) and making sure everything works.
  2. Have a plan... Write out a list of questions you want to cover, and try to build the structure of the conversation in your mind. That way, you'll be able to get the information you need even if the conversation takes an unexpected detour. 
  3. ...But go with the flow. Remember, it's a conversation, not an interrogation. This person is sharing his or her knowledge willingly, so reciprocate! Be calm, friendly, and polite; don't be afraid to crack a joke or two to set your interviewee at ease. Make sure they see it as an equal, friendly exchange rather than a brusque business transaction.
  4. Keep an ear out. The whole purpose of doing oral history interviews is to record people's voices in a way that can be preserved and shared, so make sure it's worth it! Not a lot of research can be done from an audio file that's so full of background noise you can't hear the person speaking. It's easier to ask your interviewee to pause for a minute while the background noise dies down than to try to edit it out without losing the person's voice. 
  5. Keep in touch! Let the person know you appreciate their time and their willingness to share. Keep them in the loop regarding what happens to their interview. If you can, burn the edited audio to a CD and send them a copy. If you write a paper or stage an exhibit, tell them! They'd probably love to hear about it or attend any events--people like hearing where their voices end up.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Oral History in Real Life

I'd never been aware of or had a real interest in oral history before being assigned to this project, but within the first couple weeks I came to realize that the Oral History Project is one of the most important projects we could be doing at the Starr Center. History is empty without the individual human perspective, and the Oral History project is the best way I can think of to really capture that perspective in a medium that can be archived and shared. To me, oral history isn't just a job. Aside from the value of preserving these stories, the skills that I've learned in interviews have made me a better conversationalist in my daily life. If you're used to beginning and guiding conversations with strangers twice a week, it's easy to start chatting with somebody waiting in front of you in line!

My experiences collecting oral histories  have also influenced my work as a short story writer. A recent piece, about the vanishing islands of the Chesapeake Bay, was told from the point of view of an elderly woman being interviewed by an oral history team (fictional, but in some ways quite familiar to some oral historians I know...). Having done about 15 interviews by the time I wrote this story, I was able to make the characters act like real interviewers: one character waited for a natural pause in the conversation to move his grip on the microphone so the grating noise could later be edited out without losing any of the interviewee's speech, a lesson we had to learn the hard way!

I'll also be able to use my oral history background this summer when I travel to the American Southwest as part of Washington College's Southwest Seminar program. As part of an independent research project based off of this program, I'll be interviewing members of the Navajo nation about how their use of the Navajo language relates to their sense of cultural identity, especially in the context of creative expression like poetry or literature. Honestly, these interviews will probably be pretty challenging for me! Not only am I trying to squeeze them into the program's already jam-packed itinerary, but I'll be working by myself for the first time, without my co-workers there to jump in with questions I might have missed, or an interjection to break the silence and keep things moving. I'll also be interviewing mostly college students--people my age, who generally behave very differently from the demographic I'm used to interviewing! 

So all this is as much to say, oral history isn't dead or dry or boring; far from it! It's a way to preserve knowledge and bring people together--and you never know when it might be useful!


Erasmus Kloman: Stories from a Former OSS Agent and World Traveler

Listen to his interview!

In learning about the life of Erasmus, better known as "Raz" Kloman, one is left pondering just when he had the time to sleep. Interwoven in service with the Officer's Candidate School, the OSS, the State Department, and other public bureaus, Raz managed to study at Princeton, Harvard, and Penn. Traveling around the world, Raz has written extensively about his experiences all throughout Europe. His life is one of unmatched service to one's country as well as a sincere appreciation for intellectual growth and worldly exploration.

In preparation for the Second World War, Raz began his training at the Officers Candidate School. Recruited by the Office of Strategic Services, Raz traveled to work in France, Italy, and many places around the Mediterranean. Working at the Russian desk during the Cold War, Raz was sent to study Russian at Harvard, and rose within the ranks of the agency during the conflict. Eventually, Raz would resign from the OSS and come to work for the State Department from 1949 to 1953. Focusing on recovery of the European allies after WWII, Raz was involved in substantial policy work with the Department, through which he handled important classified information. 

Moving through various public affairs agencies during the Korean War and the era of McCarthyism, Raz eventually moved to the private sector, working for the Philadelphia Ad Agency, as well as the Foreign Policy Research Institute at the University of Pennsylvania. In receiving his PhD. from UPenn in African Studies (in part due to his work with the FPRI), Raz would come to work with AMAX Global, a large metals corporation which highly valued Mr. Kloman's wealth of knowledge in global affairs and African studies. 

Rounding out his spectacularly long and diverse resume, Raz finally came to work for the National Academy of Public Administration, through which he worked extensively with NASA management. With NASA, he contributed to substantive work with the Lunar Orbiter Project as well as the Surveyor Program. 

In his interview, Raz recounts his amazing work with the OSS, recalling fascinating tales about working with resistance fighters in the European theater of the Second World War. His perspective on the courage and bravery of these forces puts into perspective the true reality behind the struggles of Axis control. In addition, Mr. Kloman highlights amazing stories regarding information gathering missions with the OSS, including one particular instance where he had to develop--on the spot--a plan to save himself just in case the mission went south. Clearly, his story is one of amazing risk and dedication to service for his country. If I could accomplish half of what Mr. Kloman has, I would consider my life a success. 

Raz currently resides in Maryland with his wife, Sue Kloman. In their worldly travels, Raz has written highly informative pieces  about his endeavors. To view and purchase his work, click here.