Reconceptualizing the Archive

Posted by Stacey Zembrzycki

I came to oral history during the second year of my doctoral studies at Carleton University. Although I entered the program with the intention of studying Canadian foreign policy, by the end of my first year I decided to switch dissertation topics. Impressive social historical works like Franca Iacovetta’s Such Hardworking People and Frances Swyripa’s Wedded to the Cause had gotten me thinking about the community that I had come from and its exclusion from the historiography. Convinced that I needed a topic that excited me and would interest me for the duration of my studies, I chose to switch fields and advisors and study Sudbury’s Ukrainian community; Sudbury is a mining town located in Northern Ontario. Although I would conduct research in local, provincial, and national archives, I also knew that this kind of study would require me to conduct a series of oral history interviews.

I began to solicit interviewees for this project during the third year of my doctoral studies. I grew up in Sudbury and have an active Ukrainian Catholic grandmother, my Baba, and so I figured that it would be relatively easy to find people to interview. It was not until I placed my first advertisement and failed to receive a single response that I began to panic. Apparently my ethnicity and my relationship with my grandmother did not make me an insider in the community. Faced with the very real possibility that my project would come to a screeching halt, I decided to ask my Baba for help. She has many friends and did pastoral visits at local hospitals and nursing homes for thirty-five years and so she offered to accompany me to these places to solicit potential interviewees. My hope was that Baba would get me inside the community, introducing some of Sudbury’s Ukrainians to my project while helping me convince them that their stories were worth recounting.

It was at this point that I learned that preparing for an oral history project and embarking upon that project are two very different things. After meeting some of Baba’s friends and acquaintances and introducing them to the project, many often agreed to be interviewed but asked that Baba be present at the interviews. For fear of losing potential interviewees, I quickly found myself agreeing to share authority with Baba in the interview space. There is no doubt that having Baba present at these interviews often complicated the interview process. I would ask questions and then Baba would ask questions or she would interrupt or she would begin to tell a story about her own experiences. This was often a frustrating and methodologically problematic process but in the end, we managed to turn our interactions into a working relationship that served my purposes, Baba’s purposes, and those of our interviewees; together Baba and I collected stories from 82 Ukrainians, 50 women and 32 men between October 2004 and June 2005.

As I struggled to understand the methodology behind my project, John Walsh, one of my thesis co-supervisors, suggested that I meet Steve High. During one of my many research trips to Sudbury, I arranged to stop at Nipissing University, where Steve was working at the time, and meet Steve. This meeting was amazing! Although I was worried about my unconventional approach, Steve assured me that my decision to take Baba to my interviews was a sound one which would produce very interesting results. He encouraged me to reflect upon my Baba’s story and the ways in which she was directing the storytelling of others. According to Steve, Baba’s story would have to be at the centre of my dissertation’s narrative if I was going to be true to my process. Although it took me a long time to embrace the subjective element that I brought to my study, I did, in the end place Baba’s story at the centre of my narrative, using the personal truths and myths that she had constructed, imagined and recollected throughout her 80 years to understand her memories as well as the web of stories recounted by my other interviewees.

In addition to reflecting upon this process, I also spent a lot of time critiquing the boundaries of the archive in the narrative of my dissertation. Drawn to the work done by Antoinette Burton, I outlined how public archives – those created and maintained by nation-states – had silenced Sudbury’s Ukrainians. I found very little evidence about this community in local, provincial, and national archives and so as I collected stories and essentially created a living history of the past, I also embarked upon a sort of treasure hunt to find anything that related to the history of this community. Instead of sitting in the reading room at Library and Archives Canada, I found myself in abandoned schools, musty basements, and tightly packed attics digging through dusty boxes, old photograph albums, and piles of “stuff” that people had kept because it had meant something to them. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time thinking about the historian’s craft and particularly, our relationship to the histories that we write and the archive stories that are central to the tales we tell.

Having completed my dissertation, I now find myself at Concordia University as a visiting oral historian at the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling. There is an amazing energy here which is breathing new life into oral history and I am pleased to be working with Steve High and a number of really dedicated and inspiring oral historians this year. In addition to playing a role at the Centre, I have been asked to act as an embedded oral historian on a software development team which is composed of another oral historian, Krissy O’Hare, and a software developer, Jacques Langlois. Our goal, over the next six to eight months, is to create free, open source software for oral historians that will enable them to archive their oral history projects while they index, tag, clip, export, reflect, and analyze them. Although a number of oral historians have been using databases like InterClipper, Zotero, and Vertov – programs that were not originally designed for oral historians but enable them to do some of these things nevertheless – I have not spent much time using these programs. While I did use a digital recorder for my interviews, I quickly returned to paper when it came to reflecting, transcribing and analyzing these interviews. Like many historians, I am comforted by paper and so this may explain why I am feeling a little anxious about the whole project. New technology can easily intimidate and so this has to be a fairly straightforward tool if I am going to be convinced of its utility.

I am, on the other hand, quite excited about the ways in which the digital realm can enable us to reconceptualize the boundaries of the archive. I have not spent much time thinking about this, but I am open to the possibilities that it can offer. In addition to pushing and pulling at the parameters of the archive, I am excited about how digital applications, like our database, will change the ways that we think about and do oral history. Michael Frisch argues that the digitization of sound and images returns aurality to oral history. As we try to figure out how to breathe new life into the old, long forgotten, taped interviews that have been stored in shoe boxes in the back of countless closets across the country, I am sure that this is a thought that we will be pondering throughout this process. I am also eager to reflect upon the ways in which two oral historians and a software developer will work together. I have no doubt that we will be testing the limits of interdisciplinary relationships in really interesting ways.

Until next time,

Stacey Zembrzycki

This entry was posted in Development Blog. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply