“Placing Memory in High River, An Oral History Project: A Student’s Reflection”
Roland Weisbrot, Ambrose University History Student
Roundtable: “History, Memory, and Community-Based Participatory Research in an Undergraduate History Program”
Conference: Conference on Faith & History 2016 Professional Conference, Virginia Beach, VA, October 22, 2016
As a history student in my junior year at Ambrose, I was fortunate to play a rather large role in the 2015-2016 Placing Memory project. My participation included research, conducting oral history interviews, transcription, helping to plan and participating in the History Harvest, as well as, learning to use online exhibition software. I will briefly discuss my experiences with each of these before giving a more general reflection on the value of the project for students such as myself.
Research is a big part of being a historian and in that sense, this project highlighted that fact. From the very beginning of the project to the end of my involvement in it, I was engaged in research to supply background information and to help fill in the gaps left by the oral interviews. The research was always fun, especially when we uncovered something remarkable about the town such as the recycling of a World War II hanger to build a new community centre in the town. It also gave us as students some practical, real-world experience that we could apply both to our degree and to potential future careers.
The most exciting part of the project, in my opinion, was the oral history interviews. Though admittedly it was difficult to get people to open up at first, once they did it was extremely rewarding. One of my interviews was conducted with a 92-year-old man who had been a resident of High River for most of his life. His stories were absolutely incredible and ranged from: working as a thresher during harvest season, serving in the Second World War as an aircraft mechanic, running his own hardware store, raising a family in small-town Alberta, and organizing the annual Little Britches parade – which is more or less a Western-themed rodeo parade. All this from a man who hesitated to even show up on the interview day because he felt his story was not noteworthy enough to be recorded! This was a common trend with participants, however, so it was very rewarding from a historian’s perspective to reassure them that their so-called “ordinary” life stories were worth preserving for future generations to reflect upon. In this way, us students witnessed the power of bottom-up public history in action with its ability to both inform and enrich a community.
Admittedly, I have few kind things to say about the transcription process, it was tedious and exhausting. That being said it was also a necessary part of the project that really helped to consolidate the mass of information acquired during the interviews. Once a transcription was complete it felt very rewarding to know that you just created a document that would be printed out and included in the findings, potentially to be used in future exhibits at the local museum. In other words, as an undergraduate I felt like I was really doing history and contributing to the field in a tangible, observable way. I simply cannot stress the value of that last point enough as an undergraduate student, it is both invigorating and inspiring to have hands-on participation in the creation of what we call history.
The History Harvest was another highlight of the project. Based on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s original concept, the History Harvest invited members of the High River community to bring their unique and historic items in for what is best described as an adult show-and-tell. Since I was on the planning committee for this event I learned a lot.