Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Launching into oral history

Today we return to our ongoing series in which we ask a variety of oral history professionals and practitioners how they ended up in the audio world and why they love oral history. Today Adrienne Cain discusses how she went from future astronaut to oral historian, and the value she sees in preserving the spoken word. To share your own story, contact our social media coordinator, Andrew Shaffer, at ohreview[at]gmail[dot]com.

I was introduced to oral history while completing my Master’s in Library Science at the University of North Texas. I needed to fulfill my practicum requirement, and I took a chance on an advertisement to intern at NASA-Johnson Space Center. (I grew up wanting to be an astronaut, but in high school I met AP Calculus and that dream was indefinitely deferred.) The internship involved working with their History Office, which is where I had the pleasure of meeting Rebecca Wright, Sandra Johnson, Jennifer Ross-Nazal, and Mark Scroggins, and a host of other wonderful people. During that tour we did not conduct any interviews, however we did have a brief session of what an oral history is, how the History Office conducts them, what equipment they use, and how they promote them. At that point I didn’t know or understand why I was so intrigued by this, but it definitely would come in helpful in the future. I completed two tours at NASA-JSC, the first with the History Office and the second with the Information Resources Directorate in which I worked with multimedia digitization. I graduated in December of 2010, but it would be nearly two years before I would begin working in the field.

In October 2012, I began working in the African American Library at the Gregory School in Houston under the direction of Hellena Stokes. I was the Oral History Librarian and knowing that my limited experience was only enough to get my foot in the door, I dove in headfirst. I sought out oral history resources such as Baylor University Institute for Oral History and the Texas Oral History Association (TOHA). Everyone with the Institute was so helpful and accessible, and their webinar is a great tool for people who are new to the field. I also gathered information and best practices from the Oral History Association and looked at different oral history programs across the county. I joined TOHA and took their online webinar “Getting Started with Oral History.” All of the oral histories conducted with the Gregory School are video recordings, so I rearranged the studio to include a backdrop and additional lighting to improve the visual quality of the recordings. I took our mission statement and began to build the oral history program around it. I sought out possible interviewees by reading local papers, cold-calling, emailing, and writing letters to businesses, schools, and local organizations. I loved every minute of it. I was learning so much about the history of African Americans in Houston (which at the time was not well documented), and making connections with people from all walks of life: politicians, educators, community activists, authors, church leaders, and more. Also, these efforts led to the TOHA’s Mary Faye Barnes Award for Excellence in Community Oral History.

In 2014, I received a promotion and moved to another special collections library under the Houston Public Library umbrella, the Houston Metropolitan Research Center. Along with the move came a new title—Oral History and Media Librarian. Not only am I now responsible for the creation and curation of oral histories on various media, I am also responsible for the care and curation of audiovisual materials in our archive. Here I focus on gathering oral histories that encompass all of the city’s history. Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the United States, and there are a lot of great stories to gather and be shared.

Building on what I’ve learned, I am now helping to create the next generation of oral historians.

Building on what I’ve learned, I am now helping to create the next generation of oral historians. I conduct tutorials and give classroom presentations on the importance of oral histories and basic tools to start an oral history project. Every semester Mika Selley, the Hispanic Collections Archivist, and I partner with a local history professor, Dr. Jesse Esparza, to bring his students into the archives for research. A part of their curriculum is to create oral histories based on the subject he provides. At the end of the semester they have a showcase of the work they’ve done and the quality of work they produce is impressive. I convinced Dr. Esparza to present at the TOHA Annual Conference this April and this will be the first professional conference many of the students have ever attended.

I put together presentations based on my findings and research for conferences as well. This past October I presented at the 2015 OHA Annual Meeting in Tampa, FL. This was my second time presenting at the conference, and it’s always a great experience. I encourage anyone interested in oral history to attend. You meet people from all over the world who share the same passions, anxieties, excitements, and headaches in the field. You have experts who are willing and available to share their expertise. You make great connections with people, and believe me those connections come in very handy down the line. (Big thank you to my mentor, Troy Reeves, for dealing with me.) In addition to OHA, I’ve presented at TOHA’s Annual Meeting and will be presenting at the Texas Library Association’s Annual Meeting here in Houston this April.

I believe oral history is important because it provides a different view of history than what we are given in textbooks. Oral histories provide first-hand accounts of moments and events in history. It is one thing to read how veterans struggled with racism during World War II, but to actually hear and see that veteran’s emotion as they recount events is a completely different experience. Oral history makes the past seem more real for those who may not have experienced it.

I love what I do. As far as what the future holds, I know I plan to continue my journey in the field of oral history. Currently, I am a member of the Oral History Association, the Archivists of the Houston Area, the Society of Southwest Archivists, the Texas Library Association, and a Board Member for the Texas Oral History Association. I’m also studying for the Academy of Certified Archivist exam in August (wish me luck!). Come say hi if you see me at the TOHA conference in Waco, TX this April, or at OHA this year to celebrate the 50th Anniversary.

Featured image: Launch. Photo by Sean O’Bryan. CC BY 2.0 via seanobryan Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Pamels Riggins

    Congratulations Adrienne on your success and touching people’s lives in an inspiring way.

    Pamela Riggins

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *