Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Word about Oral Histories

Mrs. Z was an elderly woman whose family had lived in Boulder City, Nevada during the 1930’s.  Her father owned and operated a business that removed bat guano from one of the caves near the Hoover Dam building site.  A few years ago, I sat with her for several hours and recorded her oral history.  She told me that some of her stories were things that her family had never heard before.   

Mr. X was an older gentleman that I have seen almost everyday for the past year.  I never had any long conversations with him, just bits in passing, enough to know a little about his life.  He was retired military, extremely intelligent and had a large hula dancer tattooed on his arm.  He liked to sit outside in the sun.  He often told me what was wrong with my car, recognizing a problem from the sound as I drove by.   

Mrs. Z died two days after I completed her oral history.  Her stories are now a part of the Boulder City Historical Association’s extensive collection and will be available for historians to use for many years to come.  I gave her daughter a copy of the tapes and a printed manuscript, copies of the stories that her mother said her family had never heard before.

Mr. X passed away this past weekend in his sleep.  I did not, in the past year, sit with him and record his stories.  As is often the case, many of these are now lost forever.  I would have liked to have heard about his military experience. I would have liked to have known how he knew so much about cars and I would love to know the story behind the hula girl tattoo. 

Oral Histories are an important way for non-academics to participate in “making history”.  They are often eyewitness accounts of historical events or simply stories of everyday life specific to a time period, which serve as primary sources for researchers, those crazy people who write historical fiction and history books.  I encourage anyone who is interested in history to take a short class on Oral History Methods and put on their bucket list to record at least one.     

Kelly Stone Gamble received her graduate certificate in Oral History Methods from the University of California in 2006.  She has recorded/transcribed thirty+ oral histories related to the building of the Hoover Dam that are currently archived at the Boulder City Museum, Boulder City, NV.

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