History Corps: Oral Interviews

by Heather Wacha

I am a medievalist.  I study the lives of twelfth- and thirteenth-century women.  How many times have I wished I could interview these women and ask them questions about their lives, their roles as women, their relationships, and what they saw as their place within the social landscape of northern France.

Alas, these women are long dead, so I must look for their voices in the written record.  Some days I find myself deep in a twelfth-century document and completely removed from the world around me.  While these moments are quite wonderful, I realize that not everyone shares my euphoria.  Many people view the Middle Ages as a long lost time that has little relevance to the present day.

Of course!  And there has been no looking back.  Through my participation in History Corps’s projects I have come to appreciate how being a historian transfers across chronologies and geographies. Last April when I was casually asked to conduct some oral interviews at the annual Powwow, I accepted the task as if it were a perfectly reasonable request.  But wait… I had no idea how to conduct an oral interview, especially with a live person!  This was new territory for me and it needed some deep breathing! I decided to handle this out-of-my-comfort-zone feeling by imagining that I was heading off to interview one of the medieval women I research.

It was an amazing experience. The interviews went smoothly and felt surprisingly natural.  I really enjoyed spending time with the Powwow participants and organizers talking about their experiences and thoughts of past and present Powwows.  I felt very moved since by recording their voices and stories we were not only documenting an important part of twenty-first-century American history, we were making history, and making it accessible to anyone who might want to visit the History Corps website today or ten years from now. As strange at it may seem, the oral interviews I conducted that day made me feel that much closer to the women I study.

By becoming a member of History Corps not only have I gained a broader sense of what it means to be a historian, I have been able to apply the principles of public history to my own work as a medievalist.  If you would like to see how, check out “If Books Could Talk…,”  short video episodes featuring “manuscript mysteries” aimed at getting public audiences excited about archival sources and research. Episode 4 will be out tomorrow asking the question “Does Size Matter?”

Heather Wacha, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Iowa

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