With Valentine’s Day barely a week behind us, we want to celebrate our love of oral history. To help us out, we asked Dana Gerber-Margie to tell us how she ended up in the audio world and why she loves oral history. Dana runs the wildly popular Audio Signal newsletter, and we interviewed her for the blog last October.
Throughout 2016, we’ll be asking these questions to a variety of oral history professionals and practitioners, offering a space to reflect on the things that drew them into oral history. If you’re interested in sharing your own story, contact our social media coordinator, Andrew Shaffer, at ohreview[at]gmail[dot]com.
My interest in oral history actually stemmed from a broad interest in audio itself. It all started because of my father. As an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, I worked as a page at the Bancroft Library. I was often alone in the stacks re-shelving, rearranging volumes, or working on other projects as needed. I was late to the iPod game, but finally bought a little purple refurbished iPod Nano. I loaded up all my iTunes music on it and…got bored within a few days. I mentioned this offhandedly to my dad, and he was the one who said, “Have you heard of this radio show called This American Life?” Like many people, This American Life was my gateway drug.
What really hooked me into the radio world was the 2008 financial crash. I couldn’t stop listening to NPR; This American Life had some amazing shows trying to explore the crash, and I was obsessed with economic podcasts. I was just coming out of college and into the working world, and I think I was partly just trying to come to terms with the new world I was forced to enter. I wanted to understand it. When I wasn’t listening to economics, I got really into New Yorker short stories, storytelling podcasts like The Moth, educational podcasts like Stuff You Missed in History Class, and, of course, the emotionally and mentally intense Radiolab. I suppose what I’m trying to describe is that radio became an enormous part of my life. All walks home, alarm clocks, bus rides, and chores had an audio partner.
I studied Russian History through college, knowing that at the end I planned to attend graduate school for library science to become an archivist. The only contact I had with A/V formats was to re-house a sad set of football films with a bad case of vinegar syndrome, but otherwise it was all paper-based. I worked in Public Services throughout college, and when I finally did start graduate school, I went through it with the plan to work in reference, outreach, and public services. Unfortunately, I was completely naive and over-confident that I’d love Public Services and excel in it. I didn’t focus on rigorous metadata and standards, technical discoverability, hands-on preservation skills, and so on. Towards graduation, I drifted into marketing, because I started to get very worried that I wouldn’t get a job without a Master’s or Ph.D. in History. Throughout this whole time, I still listened to radio and podcasts all the time. It was always in the back of my mind, but my imagination mostly brought me to working at NPR someday.
While this was going on, I was dabbling in other projects. I started a podcast to try and tie my interests of archives and radio together, but I am not a producer at heart. I stopped after 10 episodes. I volunteered on an oral history project to collect stories of radicals in Madison, and at the Circus World Museum, where the archivist needed the most help with digitizing circus heralds. I had an internship with Wisconsin Public Radio in the archives, but I only improved metadata and it all became very routine. I was also a TA in my second year of school, which played into my wish to go into instruction and also paid my out-of-state tuition. I did a lot more random things. My experiences after college were also pretty disparate, so I graduated feeling lost about where I belonged.
Oral history and audio always remind me that other people are living deeply, going through difficult times, and thinking strange or funny thoughts.
I worked in library communications right after I earned my Master’s, writing articles about what people were doing, managing social media, creating marketing campaigns, and I found absolutely no fulfillment in it. Part of that was a toxic workplace, but personally I also found no satisfaction in reading about how to make your Facebook posts go viral. It felt empty to me, and I got to see all the cool projects going on around campus.
I swear this is going somewhere! Because it all came together when a position for Audio Technician opened up, to digitize analog audio. I knew I wanted it instantly. I can’t explain why exactly, except that I was very drawn to the hands-on aspect of it and working with audio. I didn’t have any skills with analog audio, and even told my interviewers this, but the lab needed someone with archival skills to get a handle on all of it. I fell in love with it from day one. I feel like I’m bringing voices back to life when I digitize them. I bring out the reels or the cassettes from the vault, put them on our equipment, and then I’m working everyday to preserve the files. My official title is finally Audio Archivist, and I’ve expanded the work to go well beyond just the digitization. I love managing my own lab, working with patrons, processing collections, making our audio more discoverable. There are always problems and weird stuff going on, but the end product is always this lost sound of the universe brought back to our servers. It’s really addictive. We now have two digitization stations, and sometimes the reels are going backwards, so I don’t even get the chance to listen to a lot of it anymore!
I find audio to be deeply intimate; the podcast community is only now developing ways for listeners to share thoughts and feelings, so most of it has been consumed alone for me to ruminate over by myself. Someone’s voice is right in your ear, speaking only to you. Sometimes producers expertly use sound and music to enhance the experience. In archival audio, there’s an element of time travel to it—that you are in the room listening to a conversation that never imagined it’d be overheard. And listening to oral history is so much more profound than reading transcripts. You can hear the raw emotion coming through. Overall, oral history and audio always remind me that other people are living deeply, going through difficult times, and thinking strange or funny thoughts. I still love to read all the time, and love what my imagination conjures up. I also still really like movies, and getting the chance to see what other imaginations dream up. But audio bridges the two, and seeps into my brain in a way that I’m still imagining and feeling my own feelings but feel like I’m in the mind of the person speaking.
Image Credit: “Bancroft Library HDR” by John Martinez Pavliga. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.