No history without story

For in oral history, people are sources and sources are people.”                                                             – Dan David Prize

Stories. Listened to, read, told, recorded. Saved. Shared. The stories of individuals and communities, even our own or that of our families, are some of the most powerful ways we interact with events and people gone by. Coming up in early October we are thrilled to co-host what we know will be a thought-generating evening, inspired by the power of listening to the past. World renowned oral historian Alessandro Portelli is being brought to Winnipeg by our program partner, the Oral History Centre (housed at the University of Winnipeg). Audience members will have the opportunity to consider the value of oral histories – of listening to the full arcs of real-life stories – in today’s world of information bits and bytes. The program is free and open to all; see the end of this post for details.

Oxford Dictionaries defines oral history as “the collection and study of historical information using sound recordings of interviews with people having personal knowledge of past events.” This basic definition, while technically accurate, doesn’t emphasize the heart of oral history and its practice – that is, people.

Historian Paul Thompson gets to that heart (from the Oral History Centre site): “Oral History…is a history built around people. It thrusts life into history itself and widens its scope. It allows heroes not just from the leaders, but also from the unknown majority of the people. It encourages teachers and students to become fellow-workers. It brings history into, and out of, the community. It helps the less privileged […] towards dignity and self-confidence. It makes for contact – and hence understanding – between social classes, and between generations. […] In short it makes for fuller human beings.”

readerPowerful stuff, oral histories are – listened to or read. Winnipeg Public Library has a wide-ranging and growing collection of oral histories to learn from and enjoy. You can find a starter list of titles here. To find out how you might go about collecting an oral history – recording and sharing stories yourself – visit the Oral History Centre’s site. The Centre is a real Winnipeg gem. It offers in-person workshops, the use of equipment and software, assistance with archiving and more.  Those with a strong interest in the practice of oral history will definitely want to check out The Canadian Oral History Reader ; 2 of the book’s editors – Alexander Freund and Nolan Reilly – are Co-Directors of the Oral History Centre.

About Alessandro Portelli

orderAlessandro Portelli is Professor Emeritus, University of Rome La Sapienza and recent lecturer at Princeton University. A 2015 Dan David Prize Laureate, he is considered the world’s leading practitioner of oral history. More information about Professor Portelli can be found here and here. He also maintains a blog with occasional posts in English. Among his celebrated works are The Order Has Been Carried Out, about the 1944 Nazi massacre of over 350 Jewish and non-Jewish civilians in a suburb of Rome; and They Say In Harlan County which documents histories from Appalachian coal mining country. From Goodreads: “They Say in Harlan County is not a book about coal miners so much as a dialogue in which more than 150 Harlan County women and men tell the story of their region, from pioneer times through the dramatic strikes of the 1930s and ’70s, up to the present. Alessandro Portelli draws on 25 years of original interviews to take readers into the mines and inside the lives of those who work, suffer, and often die in them–from black lung, falling rock, suffocation, or simply from work that can be literally backbreaking. The book is structured as a vivid montage of all these voices–stoic, outraged, grief-stricken, defiant–skillfully interwoven with documents from archives, newspapers, literary works, and the author’s own participating and critical voice.” harlan

Professor Portelli will join us Monday, October 5 from 7 – 8:30 p.m. in the Carol Shields Auditorium on the second floor of the Millennium Library. Please register in-person at any Library branch or by phone 204-986-6450 (drop-ins welcome, space permitting).

We look forward to welcoming many of you to share in a great evening.

Monique W.

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