Oral history students are digitizing the past for posterity

Karen Herland

David Sworn presents the implications of using individuals’ stories to tell the history of a community.

Andrew Dobrowolskyj

History has always involved telling stories. On March 23, two students presented ideas about collecting those stories and how they can be used.

The students work with the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling under Steven High. The centre serves to provide access to new technologies that can facilitate the collection and storage of interviews in searchable digital format instead of as text-based documents.

Both Marie Pelletier and David Sworn spent time recording interviews (in most cases over an hour long) onto video. Pelletier spoke with people at both men’s and women’s homeless shelters over the last couple of years. Sworn interviewed residents of St. Henri on their childhoods growing up “below the tracks.”

Sworn’s starting point for reflection on the material he collected was a direct challenge to the traditional master narrative. “There is an overemphasis on emplotment, and on organizing material around ‘key events,’” he observed. To test how this affected how history is understood, he decided to examine his interviews from different perspectives.

For instance, he was struck by how important place was when he heard Richard Lord’s interview. “I realized how he was always a few seconds away from [mentioning] a street name, or a place like a barber shop.” Lord’s father was a railway porter, as were many St. Henri residents.

When Sworn mapped out those locations, he was able to get a visual sense of the neighbourhood. He also got a visceral sense of how important the physical boundary between St. Henri and Westmount was in terms of access to different schools, and ultimately, to different opportunities for his subjects.

Sworn then reviewed the same material paying attention to metaphor, and again with reference to keywords. Each time, he noticed different patterns and different ways to organize the interviews. The exercise underscored for him how much impact framework has on interpreting material, and how important it is to pay attention to the things that don’t fit, because of what they might reveal about the whole.

Not fitting in was a key element of Pelletier’s work with homeless people. She was struck by how immediate and ahistorical her material was, both in terms of the lives she was recording and the fact that homelessness has not been considered in a historical context.

“Many people talked about being outside of society, not on the bottom rung of the ladder,” she said. In one video clip, James Hill described how directly he experienced that exclusion. “If you walk in the front door [of the Palais des congrès] no one will bother you. If I walk in, it’s different.” He then described being evicted from the ‘lipstick forest’ that occupies the northwest corner of the ground floor, “even though I explained that I was just appreciating the art.”

Pelletier described the importance of recording the stories of people who are homeless. She spoke to others in the department, and to a handful of people who had participated in her interviews.

“Most people would prefer to turn a blind eye. But they are not just ignoring a situation, they are pushing aside people.”