By Beth Morgan on Aug 19th, 2011
Topics: Beth

Welcome to My Blog!

Hello, out there! It's great to have the opportunity to express my thoughts and ideas about the importance of oral history and personal history. However, I have a confession to make. I don't really have a blog article today. However, I can tell you a little bit about how I became interested in oral history and personal history. I will look forward to your comments.

When I graduated from college with a BA in journalism, I immediately went to work as a reporter. I worked for several small newspapers in New Mexico over the next half-dozen or so years. When I began working for The New Mexican in Santa Fe as a feature writer, I often had occasion to do personality pieces on individuals who had been selected to be honored as Living Treasures by the Santa Fe Network for the Common Good.  

These individuals were generally ordinary people who had done extraordinary things for their community. They ranged from healers and artists to dancers, scientists, teachers, and shopkeepers. They were EuroAmerican, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian. What was unusual about this program was that while most people who are honored have a plaque put on a building or a street named for them after their deaths, these folks were honored BEFORE their deaths.

The Network's program had several facets, all of them a meaningful part of the whole. To begin with, the honoree was the subject of an oral history interview. Next, a photo montage of the individual was made in his or her home or working environment. These items were archived, so that they would be available to future generations. Finally, the individual was the guest of honor at a gathering of friends, family, and admirers called a "purposeful reminiscing." Anyone who had a memory to share about the individual could do so. These gatherings also were recorded.

These events were occasions when even hardened reporters had to dig out their hankies. Just being in the same room with some of these folks was truly an honor--more than I could say about a lot of the people I covered while assigned to, say, city hall or the Santa Fe County government.

In the long-run, though, what became apparent was that a seed had been planted: my interest in oral history began to grow. For one thing, the field uses many of the same skills that are called upon in journalism. Another aspect that seemed custom-made for me was that not being able to keep one's sources "at arm's length" became less a sin. So, when, in future years, I would have to go take photos of the Senior Citizens Valentine's Dance in Española, NM, I would be thinking: "Wouldn't it be neat to come back and do an oral history with these folks?" Well, that was one of many ideas I did not carry out.

However, given the chance, I continued my education, completing a Master's Degree in English with a subspecialty in folklore and oral history. I have since had the opportunity to conduct oral histories with numerous individuals, many of them ranchers from Southern and East Central New Mexico. Much of this work has been done under the auspices of companies whose primary focus is archaeology, but which sometimes are called upon to include historical components in their projects.

In attempting some independent research, I once did a lousy job of explaining what happens during the course of an oral history interview. That was a disaster, leading to much misunderstanding! However, I’ll try to do better here. One may think that all that's happening in an interview is that you are preserving a part of history known only to the interviewee. And while that IS a big part of what is happening—and the preservation of that history is purportedly the REASON we do it—that is far from all that is happening, at least, in the best interviews. In these, I prefer to describe what happens as a spiritual exchange: it's like getting a glimpse of someone's soul. And in turn, they get a glimpse of their interviewer's soul. These are the interviews in which our subjects implore us "don't forget me!" or whose families write expressing gratitude that their relative's memories were preserved.

So, recording history via oral interviews is important not only because it documents aspects of history known only to the individuals who lived it, but because through it we also glimpse the spark of their personalities—their souls, as it were. This, I believe, is sound proof that these individuals did indeed pass this way and that each of them matter.


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