November 23, 2009

Last Saturday, Densho executive director Tom Ikeda, with communications director Patricia Kiyono, led an oral history workshop for 15 participants. Unlike how-to trainings, Tom designed this workshop to examine the uses of oral history after the tape recorder or digital camera stops running. Why record the details of someone’s life? How do you store, retrieve, and share your subject’s story, whether your subject is important to national history or family history? What are the technical, ethical, legal, archival considerations in collecting personal experiences and emotions for strangers to assess in coming decades?

Tom shared Densho’s 14-year evolution from interviews of uneven quality conducted by volunteers to life histories drawn out by professionals. Some decisions made early on, like the choice to fully transcribe every video life history, have increased the value of the collection. As technology evolves, the means of delivery keep increasing: from Densho’s website to online exhibitions, FaceBook, YouTube, and the next unidentified application.

The “why” question is easy for Densho to answer. Like oral history projects that captured narratives of ex-slaves, Holocaust survivors, refugees of wars, or civil rights pioneers, the stories of Japanese Americans unjustly incarcerated by their own government are valued by historians and defenders of human rights.

The diverse workshop participants plan to collect oral histories about Hurricane Katrina, interviews with international school children, and the stories of their own parents. Tom urged participants to research first, execute well, and carry through with results that benefit their given audience. For Densho, that means students, teachers, historians, journalists, documentary makers, museum curators, book publishers, and the general public.

Thank you to 4Culture for funding in support of this project. In response to demand, Densho will present future oral history workshops to help people capture their communities’ human heritage.