Friday, October 31, 2008

"The big thing I'm fighting is lack of awareness of the past"

Studs Terkel, whose interviews with ordinary Americans on the subjects of urban life, the Great Depression, World War II, religion, race, and work played no small part in making oral history both popular and intellectually respectable, died earlier today at his Chicago home. He was 96.

Terkel was one of the panelists who took part in the "Free Speech, Free Spirit: The Studs Terkel Center for Oral History" session at the Society of American Archivists' 2007 annual meeting in Chicago. I opted to go to this session instead of one of the electronic records sessions being offered at the same time. I did some oral history work in grad school, where I was first exposed to Terkel's work, and decided that for once I would attend a session that didn't focus directly upon my immediate professional concerns. I have to admit that Terkel's age also factored into my decision as well: although he was still working, I was all too aware that I might not have another opportunity to see him in the flesh.

Many of us who were in the audience were initially surprised that Terkel was a mere panelist. However, Terkel made it plain that this was his choice: he did not want to be a keynote speaker or dominate an entire session. I suspect that this decision was in some respects the result of his hearing loss and perfectly understandable desire to remain seated throughout the session. However, it was also plain that he really wanted to share the spotlight with others.

Russell Lewis of the Chicago History Museum, who chaired the session, opened the session by explaining that oral history is the oldest form of history: we make sense of the world through narrative. Storytelling conveys the norms and expectations of a society to children, and we adults use stories to create identities and to situate ourselves within the larger world; elements of life experience that don't conform to our identity often drop away.

He then turned to Terkel's work, which was based upon the assumption that ordinary people have compelling stories to tell and that the American people need to hear about the ways in which America falls short of the ideal, and the Studs Terkel Center for Oral History at the Chicago History Museum, The center is more of an umbrella concept than a staffed and functioning research center. It allows high school students to engage with Terkel's work and become oral historans in their own right, promotes capturing of oral histories on eight key topics (family, race, aging, neighborhood, etc.), and seeks to record the oral histories of Chicagoans from all walks of life. The histories will be made accessible in accordance with national standards (e.g., MARC), and with luck the center will serve as a national model.

Michael Gorman of the Henry Madden Library (California State University-Fresno) focused on the need to work collaboratively to address the preservation challenges posed by oral histories and other multimedia/digital resources. Although they differ on particulars, archivists, librarians, art gallery operators, and museum curators have the same goal: the permanence of cultural heritage materials and the transmission of these materials to posterity. Unfortunately, each discipline focuses on a subset of these materials. Now that the digital age has led society to sacrifice durability for accessibility, these professional divisions are no longer viable. Archivists, librarians, and professionals need to ensure that oral histories and similar materials are properly preserved for future generations.

(BTW, Gorman, a librarian, also offered a provocative assessment of changes that have taken place within his profession during the past decade: librarians eager to embrace the potential of technology uncritically adopted the values of IT and scientific management. In his view, librarians were not put on this earth to maximize productivity or efficiency; they're here to preserve the record of human activity and guide users to materials! Every now and then, my conversations with younger archivists who lack solid grounding in the study of history lead me to suspect that the archival profession will have to grapple with similar issues at some point.)

Terkel himself spoke first about the nuts-and-bolts aspects of conducting oral histories. He stressed that he was not a technically proficient person and that he has sometimes lost entire interviews because he pressed the wrong button on his tape recorder. However, his clumsiness helped interviewees, many of whom tried to help him sort out his technical issues, feel at ease when talking to him.

Terkel then talked about why he did oral history. He deliberately sought out people who are not represented in the traditional history of this nation, and he sought to make them recognize that their experiences and beliefs were of value. One interviewee who subsequently listened to her interview said that she never knew that she felt that way about things; the tape recorder, often regarded as an impediment, can actually free people.

Terkel took a few questions at the end of his loosely structured presentation, which included a number of entertaining digressions about his encounters with the yuppies moving into his gentrifying blue-collar neighborhood and other life experiences. When asked which project he would redo if he had the opportunity, Terkel responded that he would return to the history of the Depression and the New Deal: young people, in particular, had no idea that there was a time when free marketeers were reined in and organized labor wielded real power. Although he didn't come out and say it (at least in this session), it was obvious that he saw oral history as a means of getting ordinary Americans to see themselves as historical agents, not as hapless pawns of the powerful, and that he hoped that this shift in awareness would ultimately produce a resurgence of New Deal-type politics and public policy. When asked how to respond to academics who denigrate oral history as mere opinion, Terkel noted that everyone has an opinion, but oral history enables us to discover how opinions are formed.

I haven't done any oral history interviews for quite some time, and I miss it. Being interviewed sometimes makes people take stock of their lives and conclude that, in spite of disappointments and regrets they acquired on the way, their lives have meaning and their accomplishments are significant. They stand tall when they rise from their chairs at the end of the interview. It's a wonderful thing to see, and I can see why Terkel kept at it all those years.

Terkel was still working as of August 2007, and oral historian Sydney Lewis of Atlantic Public Media ended the session by describing how she collaborated with Terkel to produce a memoir that was published last November.

Terkel's final statement -- “the big thing I'm fighting is lack of awareness of the past” -- seems to me to be a fair enough description of what we archivists -- and curators, librarians, and other cultural heritage professionals -- are trying to do, and even those of us who don't share his politics ought to be able to appreciate his work. Let's all keep fighting, okay?

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