U of W profs revitalize oral history

New Oral History Centre opens

Elliot Hanowski, a fourth-year honours history student, interviewed local activist Nick Ternette as part of a project at the U of W’s new Oral History Centre. Andrew McMonagle

The University of Winnipeg has a new Oral History Centre to better conduct oral history interviews and transcriptions.

At an oral history conference they hosted in 2003, U of W history professors Nolan Reilly and Alex Freund were asked to host the Canadian Oral History Association in their offices. Holding the office, however, is only a temporary arrangement that depends on when another university wants to hold the office.

“We wanted to create something permanent here at the University of Winnipeg, so we decided to create the Oral History Centre,” said Freund.

The new Oral History Centre room and lab opened in October 2009. Although the lab is currently empty, it will be furnished as a full smart-room, with accessbility for multiple laptops to conduct research both in the lab and in the field.

Oral history is a unique type of historical material distinct from the usual historical sources, such as documents, diaries and letters.

“It’s a retrospective story,” said Freund. “It tells you about the past but also about the present. A letter or diary written in 1950 is from 1950, but [with] oral history, people tell stories from the vantage point of the present. What you get is the memory of 2010, not 1950.”

Freund said that in the past, oral history was only conducted on the political and societal elite. The Centre is currently interested in people in marginalized communities who have not yet had a chance to share their life stories and experiences, such as immigrants.

Students and community members can get involved through introductory and advanced courses in oral history, as well as workshops to conduct a single interview or a major project. Students will learn many skills, such as asking the right questions and knowing how to listen properly.

Co-directors Reilly and Freund welcome anyone to participate in the Oral History Centre.

[Oral history] tells you about the past but also about the present.

Alex Freund, OHC co-founder

Elliot Hanowski, a fourth-year honours history student, got involved with the new centre and conducted an interview with local activist and McFeetors Hall resident Nick Ternette.

“It’s been great learning from Nick’s activism,” he said. “The [oral history] technique is very valuable. It can’t replace text and records, but it gives a sense of how people felt, instead of formal history.”

A single oral history interview requires several hours to complete. Hanowski’s had nine approximately one-hour interviews with Ternette that resulted in 220 pages of transcription.

“Transcribing is the time-consuming part of oral history,” Hanowski explained.

The Oral History Centre receives funding from research grants and donations from the community.

“The University of Winnipeg has been helpful in our efforts to secure funding for the Oral History Department,” Reilly said by e-mail. “One of the objectives of the Oral History Centre is to draw the university and the broader community together through co-operative programming.”

Both Reilly and Freund are credited with revitalizing the oral history movement across Canada in 2003.

For more information, visit www.uwinnipeg.ca/index/oral-history/centre or visit the Oral History Centre on the second floor of Bryce Hall.

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