In October 2011, I attended a five day oral history conference in Denver, Colorado, USA. My reasons for going were twofold. Firstly, I wanted to learn as much as possible about how things were done on the other side of the Atlantic. Academics in American universities have recognised the value of oral history to such an extent that it has become a widely available academic subject there. In Europe, it still has its sceptics, although it is becoming more widely respected here. My other reason for wishing to go was to further my skills and information base for my current project, ‘Hidden Memories’, which involves interviewing retired members of staff here at Kew.
Extract of an interview from Kew's oral history project
The conference was organised by the Oral History Association. Speakers came from all over the United States and the rest of the world. The programme was themed around the topic 'Memories of Conflict and Disaster: Oral History and the Politics of Truth, Trauma, and Reconciliation', and offered space for a variety of oral history subjects. Workshops provided attendees with professional development options for every level of oral historian. Topics ranged from an introduction to the field of oral history, to learning about new technologies in publishing and how to apply the law to an oral history collection.
On the social side, Wednesday night consisted of a lively evening of short films, digital stories, poetry and previews with a special bourbon tasting sponsored by the Buffalo Trace Distillery! A number of oral history films were shown. ‘Quest for the Perfect Bourbon: Voices of Buffalo Trace Distillery', provided an insider’s look at life in the distillery and how world-class bourbon is made. ‘Mosaic: Voices of Women’s Suffrage’, was a filmed version of a play featuring the accomplishments of three American suffragists, in which a conversation is imagined comparing their experiences from the 1860s until 1920, when the 19th Amendment passed granting women the right to vote. The last film shown was ‘Packed: A Film About Fire, People, and Possessions’ about a fire in the Colorado mountains in 2010. It included interviews with the evacuees, in which they explained what they had chosen to take with them, not knowing if the possessions left behind would survive the massive blaze.
A selection of items from Kew's oral history collection
On the Friday afternoon, I chaired a panel entitled ‘Scientists in Difficult Times’ and also presented a paper about the oral history project at Kew ‘Hidden Memories’ with three other colleagues. Rob Perks from the British Library presented ‘Life Stories and the Audio-Video Debate: The Oral History of British Science at the British Library', Dr Peggy Dillon, from Salem State University talked about ‘Preparing for the Scientific Interview’, and Ronald E. Doel from the Smithsonian Institute spoke on ‘Documenting a Research Institution: The Smithsonian Institution Archives Oral History and Video History Collections'.
It was an extremely interesting conference and I made some very useful contacts from all over the world, learnt about new techniques and ideas, and exchanged tips and information with other oral historians.