Living Donors and the Oral Historian

When Kristin wrote recently about the troubles of working with living donors, I could not help but relate her woes to my own summertime job experience.  This summer I have worked as the Oral History Intern at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City where I have had the privilege of engaging a whole other type of living donor: the oral history interviewee.

In October, the Tenement Museum will debut a new exhibit entitled Shop Life. This basement exhibit explores the history of business culture at the landmarked 97 Orchard Street tenement.  One of my goals is to strengthen the Museum’s oral history collection with information about other neighborhood shops and storefronts, past and present. These interviews might someday serve as the foundations for a Shop Life neighborhood walking tour to accompany the new tenement exhibit.

LES TLH PostLower East Side tenements

To collect oral histories, I rely on the theory and methodology taught in our graduate course Oral History at Loyola University Chicago.  We delved into the intricacies of interview technique, transcription methodology, and the ethical implications of exploiting interview sources for our own academic and professional gains.  Now that I am in the field doing this work for myself, I realize one topic, preceding all the rest, remained largely unaddressed: How do you even get someone to sit down with you for an interview?

Oral historians face a plethora of obstacles before they ever press that red button on their digital voice recorders.  First, the lay person is not used to regarding the intangible as historically relevant.  Museums are filled with priceless artwork and artifacts.  Behind the scenes curators and historians glean invaluable evidence from oral history sources, but oral history interviews are still less common in the museum scene (at least in my museum-going experience).

LES TLH PostEssex Street Market, 120 Essex Street

Second, the term itself, oral history, is off-putting. This is not necessarily a concept with which your interviewee-to-be is familiar. So, oral historians invent a new vocabulary to engage sources on a level that makes sense. We talk about family history, childhood stories, and most importantly, memory.

Yet, even the word memory can put you in a pickle.  Herein lies the oral historian’s third obstacle.  When asked to share the history of her family and the Lower East Side commercial building they owned for several generations, the great niece of the original owner noted regrettably that anything she knew would be third-hand.  Her late mother, in her great story-telling capacity, was a master “fabricator.”  Nothing she could share would necessarily be true. How was I to explain the complexities of memory and their historical relevance—a concept so intricate one could take an entire graduate seminar on the topic?  I told her, fabricated or not, I wanted to hear every juicy and joyous tidbit she knew. Memories and handed-down stories are as valuable as any truths you might share.

LES TLH PostSwabian pretzels and beer at Landbrot, 185 Orchard Street

Fourth, oral history interviewees are often everyday people who might perceive their own stories as trivial in the grand scheme of History with a capital H.*  These aren’t politicians like Kristin’s living donor, after all.  I’m interviewing the great-grandchildren of street peddlers, past sellers of discount shirts, and current-day bar owners.  You want to hear the story about how I had to escort comedian Jerry Lewis to my warehouse to view my merchandise to keep a mob out of my store? You want to hear how Mr. Lewis found himself beneath an avalanche of suitcases after a a shelf toppled over?  Why, yes, I most certainly do. (If you’re wondering, Jerry Lewis remained a faithful customer. From then on, however, the luggage had to be brought outside the warehouse for his browsing pleasure.) While on the surface this delightful tale might lack the historical-caché of Senatorial papers, it nonetheless reveals invaluable details about life and the business culture of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Lastly, complicated waivers (a.k.a. release forms or deeds of gift) put interviews on indefinite hold.  You want to conduct an oral history interview with me in which you record everything I say and this form I must sign that’s full of mumbo-jumbo legalese states you have rights to use my interview in any which way you please for the rest of time? You see my point.  While I might sit down with many potential interviewees and explain the institution’s intent and decode language, my job becomes slightly more difficult when I hope to interview that 86 year old woman who lives in faraway New Jersey.  Reassuring her about this waiver when I’m unable to sit face-to-face numbers another problem on this growing list. And, no waiver means no interview.

LES TLH PostPickled pineapple at Pickle Guys, 49 Essex Street

It is frankly quite amazing any oral historians succeed with the number of obstacles in their way.  I suppose we could all just do things Studs Turkel-style by ambushing folks in the backs of taxi-cabs (read Hard Times), but I have a feeling this methodology wouldn’t work for everyone.  Luckily for me, the Tenement Museum’s strong reputation on Manhattan’s Lower East Side has made my job easier.  For over twenty years this institution has made its mission to tell the stories of immigrants, working class peoples, and local history. But beyond the Lower East Side, working with living donors is a challenge faced by archivists and oral historians alike though their troubles may present themselves in different disguises.

*I do not presume to know how every individual regards the practice of history, but I will say I am making a broader argument about the pervasiveness of a positivist tradition of historical scholarship in the United States and its residual effects on the American public.

Photos by Anne E. Cullen and Peter Kirschmann.

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One thought on “Living Donors and the Oral Historian

  1. Awesome post, Annie. I especially appreciate your point about the Tenement Museum’s strong reputation on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It seems to me that the establishment and long-term maintenance of community ties is a critical precedent to any successful public history project, including oral histories.

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