Oral history project captures W&M's story

“Oral history, I learned, is one of the purest and most authentic forms of historical documentation that exists, and offers opportunity for relationship building, ownership of one’s story and, in some cases, catharsis for the storyteller, “ said Carmen Bolt, oral historian for the College of William and Mary Libraries, in an interview with the Gazette.

A graduate of Virginia Tech, she was hired to fill a newly created position at the college, funded entirely through private support. According to a Swem Library news release, “Over the next two years, W&M will celebrate two landmark events that shaped the institution we know today: the 50th anniversary of African-Americans in residence and the 100th anniversary of coeducation at the university.”

Bolt said she considers it a great privilege to collect the fascinating and inspiring stories of the people associated with these milestones, from alumnae spanning nearly 10 decades, to pioneering African-Americans who broke barriers for future generations. Her particular specialty combines the age-old tradition of storytelling with the latest in technological innovation.

“With the assistance of my colleagues at Swem’s Special Collections Research Center, Digital Services and the Charles W. Reeder Media Center, I am able to capture living history in digital form to share with current and future students, alumni and the broader community,” she said.

“I can’t describe how rewarding it is to be part of this new library initiative — one that expands our understanding of the past and promotes lifelong learning.”

I asked Bolt what kind of technical devices she uses to conduct an oral history interview.

“Depending on the content and the preferences of the interview subject, I either use an audio recorder — my personal preference is the Zoom H4n Handy Recorder — or a video camera. I have a Canon XF100 HD Professional Camcorder. However, the videography team often records the oral history with their equipment. After the interview is conducted, I use software like Abode Premiere Pro or Abode Audition to process the video/audio.”

I also asked Bolt what she asks her interview subjects.

“The questions I ask differ depending on the project. The arc of the interview usually spans from childhood to modern-day, with the greatest emphasis and number of questions centering on their time at William and Mary.

“I routinely ask questions about their memories of their time at W&M — the good and the difficult — and how their time at William and Mary shaped their trajectory in life after they graduated.”

For the two projects Bolt is working on, she asks her subjects to speak about what they believe to be the value of diversity and inclusion on campus and the value of contributions women made on campus. I asked her to share some amusing or interesting stories that emerged from her recent interviews.

“I will refrain from quoting any oral histories directly until they have been made available through our archive. But I can tell you that the stories I have had the honor of capturing so far are inspiring and heartrending and beautifully diverse. They are the stories of humanitarians and activists and educators and nurturers and often, all of those things at once. And we’ve only just scratched the surface.”

Nowadays, oral history practice and application are increasingly digital. Bolt is determined to keep up-to-date on what is new in the field, be it a platform on which she can feature these resources or a tool such as the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer, which works to make the resource increasingly accessible to a broad audience. She feels the story of William and Mary needs to be told.

Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.

Copyright © 2017, The Virginia Gazette
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