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WORLD FOCUS: Starting an oral history project

November 10, 2017
By FRANK SHATZ , Lake Placid News

In an interview with the Lake Placid News and Virginia Gazette, Carmen Bolt, oral historian for William & Mary Libraries, said, "Oral history, I learned, is one of the purest and most authentic forms of historical documentation that exist, and offers opportunity for relationship building, ownership of one's story, and in some cases, catharsis for the storyteller."

A graduate of Virginia Tech, she was hired to fill a newly created position at William & Mary, funded through private support.

According, to a Swem Library press 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 considers it a great privilege to collect the fascinating, inspiring stories of the people associated with these milestones, from alumni spanning nearly 10 decades to pioneering African-Americans who broke barriers for future generations.

Her particular specialty combines the age-old tradition of human 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 boarder 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 is using 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 about the basic questions 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 & Mary," she said. "I routinely ask questions about their memories of their time at W&M - the good and the difficult - and how their time at William & Mary shaped their trajectory in life after they graduated."

For the two projects Bolt is currently working on, she ask her subjects to speak about what they believe to be the value of diversity and inclusion on campus and the value of contribution women made on campus.

I asked her to share some amusing or interesting stories that emerged from 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 activist 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 like the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer, which works to make the resource increasingly accessible to a broad audience. She feels the story of William & Mary needs to be told.

Frank Shatz's column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette. Shatz is a Lake Placid seasonal resident. He is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place," the compilation of his selected columns.



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