On Thursday, Albion College hosted the 24th annual Marilyn Crandell Schleg Lecture: “Finding Community Through the Practice of Oral History.” The speakers included Eastern Michigan University (EMU) archivist Alexis Braun Marks, Lecturer and Oral Historian Matt Jones and Albion alumnus and EMU graduate student Akaiia Ridley ‘22.
To start the lecture, Marilyn Crandell Schleg Memorial Archivist and Special Collections Librarian Elizabeth Palmer said the lecture was named after a 1958 alumnus of Albion College, Marilyn Crandell Schleg, a medical librarian with master’s degrees in both microbiology and library science.
“In 1998, Marilyn’s love for libraries prompted her to endow the college with an archivist position and fund an annual lectureship focused on archives and libraries,” Palmer said.
Palmer added that after Schleg’s death in 2001, her family endowed the lecture so that it would continue as a tribute to her.
“Throughout this presentation, you’ll hear about the underfunded and highly improvisational beginnings of our oral history program,” Jones said. “We grew our program from an iPad mini and 15-minute canned interviews to a program that wholeheartedly encourages long-lasting connections.”
Jones is a dual-degree holder with a bachelor’s in history and a master’s in historic preservation. Jones said that at the start of the program, he wasn’t sure if anyone knew if oral history could be a career, but work needed to be done.
The oral history program started at EMU in Sept. of 2017. Jones found audio recordings from various points at EMU and an old collection done by a former Vice President for Student Affairs, Laurence Smith, had done for his Sesquicentennial Publication.
Jones said that oral history is made up of three main parts: “The collection of memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews, a well-prepared interviewer and the transcription, processing and preservation.”
Jones said some skeptics look at oral history and wonder: “How can we trust what this one person has to say?”
To that, Jones asks: “How can we not?”
Jones said that history is based on traditional oral practices that include the who, what, where and when of historical happenings. What you don’t get is the how and the why.
“What is often not available are the descriptions of how people felt, the internal monologues that guided the decision making,” Jones said.
He said it offers people who did have a voice before to have a chance to make an impact.
There are times when oral history will pull you or the people you’re interviewing into uncomfortable situations, Jones said. Back in 1992, former EMU President William Shelton decided to change the school’s mascot from the Huron to the Eagle because of its racist connotations.
After interviewing with Jones and one of his students, Shelton said he realized he made the right decision to change it, even with alumni backlash.
Ridley presented the “Beginning of Belonging: Using Oral History to Unearth and Explore the Black History of Albion College.”
“I heard about Oral History as a method of research while doing my first FURSCA project,” Ridley said. “I interviewed Black teachers who came to Albion after being recruited by Albion Public Schools to diversify the teaching staff.”
Ridley said she always wanted to be an interviewer; she loved learning about the lives of others and asking them questions about experiences they have had. Ridley said that by participating in oral history, she was able to help diversify the archives as well.
“While struggling to understand the role of Black students with the lack of information in the archives, our team decided that what better way to know where to start than asking the students themselves,” Ridley said.
Ridley said that she and her team made it a point to share with participants that their interviews would not be misused and would be stored properly. There has to be an intention behind a project and that needs to be made clear to who you are interviewing, she added.
Since many people were not aware of what they were doing, it was hard to get people on board, Ridley said. They had to use an Internal Affairs resource to help them reach out to alumni, many of whom did not live in the Albion area.
The interviews conducted with those who did not live in the area were held online. Ridley said that even online, you have to make sure you are building trust with your interviewee and you have to go in prepared.
“The work that the program has done has brought a lot of attention to EMU,” Ridley said. “People are willing to participate in the interviews but have also reached out for guidance on their own projects.”
Braun Marks has been an archivist at EMU for 12 years. Braun Marks said that when she began her career, she didn’t know that archives were something you could make a living at, even though she worked as a historic site guide. She spent three years facilitating visits to libraries and archives for students at the Minnesota Historic Day Program.
After finishing graduate school, Braun Marks took a three-year-long contract position where she had the opportunity to try a variety of jobs.
In her part of the presentation, Braun Marks spoke on the importance of investing resources. She said it means providing those who are interested in a career in archives with the valuable resources they need in order to be successful; in other words, “being a mentor.”
“At Eastern, I always say, there is plenty of work that needs to be done,” Braun Marks said. “Just tell me what you’re interested in, look at your resume, identify what skill you need to gain and we will find a project that meets your needs.”
Braun Marks said the goal of oral history is to create a community where everyone feels they have something important to add; it helps students to be “self-directed and driven.” The hope is to get students to pick out projects that interest them and create a space where they feel seen, supported and heard; establishing values is important, she said.
Braun Marks said the core values in the archivist community are “equity, ethics, creating space for future generations, integrity and stewardship”
“It is near impossible to get the support of anyone if you do not operate from a place of integrity,” Braun Marks said. “In archives and oral histories, stewardship is important.”
She said that in order to be in a place of integrity, you have to practice good communication, create true workplace and community relationships, take accountability and listen to others’ ideas. In order to create stewardship, a person has to remember that their ideas are not more important than others – and everyone has something to bring to the table.