Capturing oral histories

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AKCHO members listen to Liz Stewart talk about oral histories at the Renton History Museum

How to identify oral history subjects, conduct the interviews, and then preserve and use the results was the topic of AKCHO’s November membership meeting, held at the Renton History Museum.

Museum director Dr. Elizabeth Stewart shared her institution’s early focus on collecting the stories of Renton pioneers – those tended to focus on Renton’s earliest industries: Pacific Car & Foundry, coal mining, and airplane manufacturing. Stewart said the Museum also has recordings of traditional Duwamish songs sung by Joe Moses, the father of Henry Moses, who was an early sports star of Renton High School. The Museum, which has taped 145 oral history interviews since 1975, now seeks to capture the diverse voices of more recent arrivals to Renton.

Stewart noted that special skills are required to conduct oral histories, and since the Museum has only a small staff, she depends on volunteers to do this work – with the number of people available to help ebbing and flowing over time. The Museum sometimes finds opportunities to gather oral histories while assisting others, such as the Museum’s recent work with the Renton Parks Department in developing Heritage Park, a project which focused on a predominantly African American neighborhood in Renton. In another project, the Museum is archiving completed short films that have been shot in Renton in conjunction with the Seattle International Film Festival’s presence there. While these are generally fictional films, they do capture the look, feel, and sound of the place at a moment in time. Stewart also shared an instance of a recent oral history collection effort that wasn’t very successful, and encouraged audience members to talk about their experiences – good and bad – in collecting oral histories. 

The group also covered the ways oral histories might be used: by researchers, in exhibits, as reference materials for staff, and – Stewart forecasts – more and more in multimedia presentations. “Podcasts are coming!” she said.

Before the meeting came to a close, there was a discussion around the urgent necessity of digitizing oral histories that were recorded on cassette tapes, before those tapes degrade. Both MiPoPs (Moving Image Preservation of Puget Sound) and UW Libraries have programs that can assist in that regard.


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Heritage Advisor is published by the Association of King County Historical Organizations as a service to members and those who support its mission. We update our website continually throughout the month, and on the first of every month we e-mail a condensed version of Heritage Advisor to our mailing list – you can subscribe to this service by filling out the requested information in the right sidebar on this page.

AKCHO was established in 1977 to encourage cooperation among historical organizations; promote and encourage the study and preservation of the history and heritage of King County through member organizations, individual members, and the community they serve; and support such preservation efforts through public awareness and understanding of legislative issues.

The Heritage Advisor welcomes submissions of news items, calendar items, and opinion columns from AKCHO members, HA subscribers, and readers. Articles are limited to 300 words and they should have a strong relevance to historic preservation and heritage issues in King County, Washington. Submission of an article does not guarantee publication. AKCHO does not pay for published submissions. All articles are subject to review by AKCHO staff. Please send your article within the body of an email (no attachments, please) to heritageadvisor@akcho.org.

AKCHO welcomes new members year round. Individual memberships are $15. Organization memberships are $35. Join more than 150 individuals and organizations supporting heritage work and historic preservation in King County. For more information and an application form, visit http://www.akcho.org/members.


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AKCHO was established to encourage cooperation among historical organizations and to promote and encourage the study and preservation of the history and heritage of King County through member organizations, individual members, and the community they serve, and to support such preservation efforts through public awareness and understanding of legislative issues.

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