This webinar was moderated by Traci Mark, Studio Manager at METRO Library Council. Panelists include Meral Agish, Community Coordinator for Queens Memory Project at Queens Public Library, and Kimberly Springer, Curator for Oral History at Columbia University. The event took place on Wednesday, May 20, 2020.

Sharing Memories: Oral History Projects During COVID-19 opened with ten-minute presentations from both panelists. Meral Agish kicked things off by sharing the ways in which Queens Memory Project operated both before and after the pandemic. During “normal times,” the project employed two full time staff, two part time staff, and twenty volunteers. Before the pandemic, most Queens Memory Project operations took place in person, where staff and volunteers collected resident’s memories of Queens.

As libraries began to close in mid-March, Agish wondered “what does Queens Memory Project look like when we can’t do anything in person?” Her initial shock and grief soon gave way to the grim understanding that the borough of Queens had become an epicenter. In Partnership with Urban Archive, Queens Memory Project launched the Covid-19 project, where people can submit oral histories, drawings, photos, and any other material they’d like to share.

Kimberly Springer spoke about the structure of Columbia Center for Oral History. Established in 1948, the initiative now works across the Oral History Archives at Columbia (OHAC, which runs out of the library at Columbia) and the Columbia Center for Oral History Research (which runs out of the University’s Arts and Sciences division). The former has between ten and fifteen thousand interviews, many of which are now available in the new Digital Library Collection. OHAC is currently working to process a backlog of three thousand unprocessed interviews. The Columbia Center for Oral History Research, meanwhile, collects oral histories around 9/11, Covid-19, and other ground-altering events that impact New York City.

Springer shared three guiding ideas for thinking about oral histories. First, we know that archives have their own biases for whose stories are told and collected. This is clear in the archive Springer works with: early interviews focus on captains of industry, leaders in business. In the 1960s, interviews focused on people who organized grassroots movements. Springer advocates for collecting community stories and finding appropriate homes for oral histories so that they can be accessible to their own communities.

Second, Springer noted that “oral histories are jointly authored between the narrator and the interviewer.” The interviewer acts as a guide for the narrator, having come from a place of research in order to understand the context for the interview. Relatedly, Springer’s third point advocated for narrators; they have a right to be heard, the right to place restrictions on interviews, and the right to withdraw their interview. Narrators also own the right to a copy of the interview for their personal archives.

During the moderated conversation, both panelists shared their average workdays before and after libraries closed to mitigate the spread of the virus. Springer’s work shifted from working on multiple projects each day, along with reference requests, meetings, and similar diversions. Working from home, she said, means that Springer has refocused her work around self care; these days, she manages one or two tasks per day. Agish has shifted her focus away from an ambassadors program at ten branch libraries, which will resume at a later date, toward figuring out new ways of collecting oral histories now that social distancing orders are in place. For both panelists, the erasure of “home” and “work” has impacted their productivity.

Panelists discussed the impacts of physical distancing on the art of collecting oral histories, noting the outreach has shifted along with the interviewing process. Agish acknowledged that both aspects have been a big hurdle, even for those with a background in oral history interviewing. A few colleagues have been able to keep practices from “before,” like using Google Voice to record interviews and returning to narrators with whom they already had built a rapport. Even so, “there’s no one perfect system,” Agish noted, adding that staff are testing out a wide variety of platforms and tools. She shared that there are access considerations here, too: not everyone has access to an iPhone, for example. For this reason, Springer advises focusing on audio interviews so there’s less tech to manage.

During this time, as in the “before,” establishing a rapport with narrators is an important part of this process. Springer recommended setting up a pre-interview with narrators, reinforcing that they are the experts of their own lives. Agish added that it’s important to ensure narrators have the right to reschedule or even end interviews; collecting oral histories is far less important than the well-being of the people who are sharing their stories.

  • If you’re interested in collecting oral histories at a distance, our panelists shared their recommendations:
  • Create a recording workflow that’s comfortable for you and your narrator
  • Be flexible with tools and workflows; tech problems are inevitable
  • Be aware of the emotional tenor of the narrator; these are difficult times for all
  • Audio interviews may be more manageable at this time; audio files are smaller and easier to deal with, and we may be experiencing Zoom fatigue
  • Establish a rapport by conducting a pre-interview that establishes ground rules and establishing the narrator as an expert of their own experience

Here are a few resources if you’d like to go further, courtesy of Springer:

Many thanks to Meral Agish and Kimberly Springer for their compassion, wisdom, time, and energy. We hope to see you at an upcoming event; please see our calendar at metro.org/events.