The Evolution of an Oral History Project

Article excerpt

INMAGIC and SearchMAGIC help an oral history dream come true.

The Oral History Project of the Town of Weston, Massachusetts, was developed under the aegis of the Weston Public Library with the cooperation of the Weston Historical Society. Its goal was to interview individuals whose family roots reached far back into Weston's history as well as those who had acquired a special knowledge of Weston and whose accounts might shed light on the town's character and development.

In pursuing this project, a steering committee composed of members of the Historical Society, the staff of the Weston Public Library, and other local volunteers was formed in 1978. The committee was assisted by Jeannette Cheek, whose experience with oral history began when she was the director of the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College in the late 1960s.

The first task was "trying to get good people to do the interviewing, looking for individual men and women who had had wide experiences with life in Weston," according to Cheek. The committee proceeded slowly and with care on this, finding two or three key persons to agree, and then taking their suggestions for others who might add strength to the project. No one who was approached refused, and the ultimate group of twelve to fifteen remained relatively constant for the following years.

Patterns Emerge

As the first interviews were completed, transcribed, and edited, it was clear that they contained lively portraits of people and that they were full of interesting information. But were they history?

When more than thirty had been completed, a second reading convinced the committee that something had emerged beyond chronologies of events and individual lives, that patterns of the town's development had indeed become clear. Accounts of the same thing often varied in viewpoint and detail, but they reinforced each other in total substance.

Weston had been a farming community for 200 years when the twentieth century began. It continued to be one even as individuals from Boston and environs began to filter in, first as summer visitors, boarders, perhaps, in establishments like the Old Drabbington Inn on North Avenue. Many of these people grew to love the Weston countryside and soon sought to buy farms of their own.

By the 1920s real estate trusts were being formed by some of the larger estate owners in Weston and smaller pieces of land became available. What had started slowly in the 1920s and 30s, when the population still stood at under 2,500, turned into a flood after the end of World War II. Doctors, lawyers, financiers, professors, architects, businessmen, teachers -- the usual middle class mix -- all were among the newcomers. Farmers, needless to say, were noticeably absent.

Public Access

After more than ten years of capturing vital local history from the mouths of those who made it, a second goal was outlined -- that of making the histories readily available to the townspeople of Weston. Alice Douglas, the director of the Weston Public Library, wanted to broaden public awareness not only of the present community, but of how it developed, and of what it was becoming.

To meet this goal the historical society provided interviewers, transcribers, and funding at critical junctures while the public library provided a place to house the collection and project continuity. Three key elements assuring continuity included the organizational structure and governance of the library, the dedication of project volunteers and library staff, and reliable funding.

LSCA Support

The second part of the dream, access, was initially assisted by a federal Library Services and Construction Act grant. Seizing an opportunity to build on the usefulness of microcomputer software (INMAGIC) that had already been acquired through a similar award to index the Weston Town Crier,(1) Douglas requested a grant to index the Oral History Project. …