The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, June 7, 2002


'Uniquely illuminating' oral histories ­ voices from Carlisle's past

From time to time in the past six years, the Mosquito has published transcripts of interviews produced by the Carlisle Oral History Project. The most recent interviews are of Dr. Peter Morey, Carlisle's veterinarian, which appeared in the May 3 Mosquito, and that of Bonnie Miskolczy, founder of the Mosquito, on April 5. Some readers have wondered about the historical accuracy of the information shared in these interviews, providing us with an opportunity to explain briefly what oral history is ­ and is not.

Oral histories, broadly speaking, document human experience. Individuals share their memories, offering their own perspectives on their lives and experiences. The interviews can stand alone or be woven into a historical tapestry of an event, a social or political movement, a family, or, in our case, a town. The goals of the Carlisle Oral History Project, jointly supported by the Mosquito and the Carlisle Historical Society, are to keep our town's unique history alive and to connect residents with the town's past. In the process, we hope that the recollections of longtime citizens will help us appreciate the values that shaped Carlisle, trace its changing landscape, celebrate its continuing traditions, and even guide us in making the right decisions for the town's future.

May not be historically accurate

But buried within the positive outcomes of an oral history lies its potential weakness as a historical tool ­ the fallibility of human memory. Unless it is based on rigorous historical research and framed as a serious inquiry, an oral history interview is not designed to be a historically accurate record. Records that are written at the time of an event are surely less distorted by the passage of time and are, some historians argue, a better source of factual information. Moreover, some oral histories lack context. Family histories (or "life reviews," as they are known) become treasured remembrances of parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, but because they usually lack historical context, they contribute little to our store of knowledge about the Depression, or World War II, for example. Oral history adds "color" to events, enriching and enhancing the black and white of the printed record through emotion, details, photographs and artifacts, and the special qualities of the interviewee.

We would not rely on oral histories alone to tell the history of the town of Carlisle. Fortunately, we have an outstanding written history, Carlisle: Its History and Heritage, published in 1976 by Ruth Chamberlin Wilkins. The book is scrupulously researched and it remains the authoritative historical account of the town's evolution from a tiny farm community to an affluent rural suburb. (A revised edition will be available at Old Home Day.)

Oral history interviews in Carlisle complement this written record by putting a human face on the town's history. If you wanted to know about the succession of stores in the center, you would consult Mrs. Wilkins's book for relevant dates and information about the many store owners (many of whom were also the postmasters). And if you wanted to know what it was like to work at the store when it was a Red and White in the 1930s, you would view the video of Helen Wilkie's oral history, or read the transcript.

Carlisle as a farm community

Through the Carlisle Oral History Project's videos, audiocassettes and transcripts, we have a lasting record of Carlisle as a farm community in the 1900s, recreated through the stories of Guy Clark, Beulah Swanson, Inga MacRae, Larry Sorli, and Susan Smith, whose husband Farnham Smith owned Great Brook Farm. The stories shared by these and other Carlisleans reveal what it means to be a helpful neighbor, a responsible citizen, a trusted friend, a good parent, a decent person. The human touch in oral histories connects us to long-ago Carlisle and its citizens who cared deeply about this town and preserved its heritage.

Tapes and transcripts of the Carlisle Oral History Project are available at the Gleason Public Library. Future plans include interviews with townspeople who have served on various town boards for many years and who will compare their experiences in grappling with town business, then and now. Another program will speak with the children of Carlisle who grew up here in the 1950s and '60s and witnessed the town's spectacular growth.

The oral history tradition in our country remains a powerful tool for collecting and preserving information. Beyond the borders of our own community, on a national level, oral historians are currently exploring the impact of the nation's signature event ­ the September 11 attacks. U.S. Army military historians are interviewing survivors of the attack on the Pentagon and those involved in the recovery operation. "Understanding past experiences gives us the priceless opportunity to do better," said Brig. Gen. John S. Brown, the Army's chief of military history. "The September attacks will not be our last tragedies."

Also, the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. is documenting, on tape, how the average American perceived the attacks. The national effort is being compared to Pearl Harbor interviews, when folklorists spread out across America starting the day after December 7, 1941, to collect "person in the street" interviews. By contrast, says Peggy Bulger, director of the Folklife Center, we now have e-mail accounts, but there is "something uniquely illuminating about oral history. Hearing the voices is a very different thing. Those voices are chilling."

2002 The Carlisle Mosquito