Last month Cathy Newland and I met with a good sized group from her community to kick off the Adult Summer Reading program. This summer the Silver Lake Library is devoting their resources reserved for that program to facilitate an oral history project: Silver Lake Stories.

Cathy had applied to participate in StoryCorps @ your library, and just like many of you, she did not receive that grant, nor the training in New York City. Not one to quit, in early spring, Cathy called the NEKLS office wanting to know what it would take to get an oral history project started. Could the Silver Lake Library facilitate an oral history project without the aid of StoryCorps?

The Technology

Silver Lake Library is a bit of an Apple shop; they have a couple of iMacs, one which is brand-spanking-new, an iPad, and like the majority of American smart phone users, they carry iPhones. We quickly decided to use Apple products as the brains of the operation, and GarageBand for the controls. The content would be stored on their website. Additionally Cathy plans on pre-loading the recordings on cheap MP3 players for accessibility. She mused that the MP3 players might be able to be used by site-seeing-travelers; providing an audio tour guide to those who visit the city.

This only left one major expense, a professional microphone. After some quick and dirty research I came upon an Apogee Microphone, the Mic 96k. I liked how the mic was built to work directly with Apple products; it comes with adapters to fit old and new iProducts and also USB. The demo recording on the Apogee site sold me on this particular product. The sound was warm and full. It looked like this would be a simple technical process, which is important when you are trying to get “buy in” from your community.

I loved hearing about how Cathy and “the voice” of the Silver Lake Story project, Gary McDaniel, experimented with their recordings. It involved pillows! They found that they needed to adapt the acoustics of their “studio” to get a clean sound.

It was very important to me that I come up with a hyper-mobile solution for making the recordings. I wanted the interviewers to be able to go out into the community to get the good stories, to be able to record the sounds of history that are still lingering, and finally for the device to disappear into the background. I wanted to reduce “tech anxiety” for the oral historians and the storytellers.

So far I have been editing the final recordings. I do this at the NEKLS office on the iMac I tap away on now, using GarageBand. I chose Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring as the accompanying music for the episodes. It was playing on the radio when I went to work with Cathy one spring day, it was kismet (and maybe even a copyright violation,  but I’ll worry about that when they make Silver Lake the movie).

Speaking to the Silver Lake Community

I really wanted to hammer home the “buy in” that was needed for this project to be successful.  This was not the Silver Lake Library’s oral history project; this was not Cathy Newland’s oral history project. This needed to be a community wide project if it were to be successful. Something like this is bigger than a library director. Bigger than a library staff. People couldn’t suggest the stories that Cathy should be recording, they needed to go out and get them. Perhaps more importantly they needed to tell the stories.

Midwest sensibilities train us that we really don’t have anything important to say, nothing anyone would really want to hear anyways. This is especially apparent when speaking to members of the Greatest Generation. I asked the community members who had shown up, “who has a story they would share?” No one really responded. I tried to pry. Was it embarrassment, stage fright, humility?

Rossville Remembers is an oral history project from a city only a few miles down Highway 24. I told them how I had found the tales engrossing; about how I gobbled them all up in one night before bed. These were not some deeply profound tales, yet they were captivating. The citizens of Silver Lake had these stories in them too, they just needed to let them out. “Yessir, we want to hear about the J. Thomas Lumber Company.”

I encouraged those interested in interviewing to go to StoryCorps and check out their compiled resources. I shared some of the pointers I had read up on. When interviewing a group, encourage the storytellers to not speak over one another, which can be hard on the audience. I reinforced the idea of keeping the recordings conversational. Something my hesitant storytellers also needed to hear, no one is is concerned about your use of grammar, after all this is not a graded history report.

I played a sample of Rossville Remembers. It was John A Wehner talking about the family owned businesses. I was unaware of something, John’s tale was captured 6 months before his passing. An unexpected emotion passed across the room. There was a sudden understanding about why we were all gathered; a Kansan, a friend, a man no longer with us, was still able to share his story, history recorded.

Start facilitating your community’s oral history project today, or this rich history will surely fade away.


Photo Credit: Silver Lake, Kansas by flickr user kswx_29  used under a Creative Commons license