The importance of oral history

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oral history

Photo courtesy of Mari-Ann Kind Jackson
Mari-Ann Kind Jackson is an active member of the National Nordic Museum in Seattle.

What is oral history? The Oral History Association describes it: Oral history is a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving, and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events. Oral history is both the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word, and one of the most modern, initiated with tape recorders in the 1940s and now using 21st-century digital technologies.

The value of oral history is its power to fill in huge gaps in documented history found in public records, whether for an event, a place, a person’s life or an organization. Persons sharing their experiences, memories, and stories can elaborate and add to their lived lives, enhancing book knowledge and perhaps even correcting published facts, while adding details otherwise unknown.

History, taught in educational venues, can only give a glimpse of the major past events. Oral history provides a way to more fully understand the human experiences associated with a specific happening or place. These conversations and recollections shed light on the effects world events had on the person or family interviewed. Anyone watching or listening to recorded oral histories will better understand the past and learn more than only generalizations.

At the National Nordic Museum in Seattle, two early oral history projects focused on Ballard, the city’s earliest Scandinavian neighborhood. Then, in 2010, Nordic American Voices (NAV) was established to collect stories of Nordics in the Pacific Northwest. Museum member Gordon Strand felt the oral history field was ripe for expanding and modernizing within the museum framework. Also involved with a local history group, he instigated and led the original NAV steering committee, recruiting museum volunteers, including myself. Our first interviews were tape-recorded, but technological updates now make it possible and much more interesting to film each narrator’s story.

NAV was first a project but is now an important and valuable museum program with its own operating budget. In 2020, the program has grown and completed more than 850 interviews. Several of the narrators have since passed, making their stories even more valuable. Since its founding, interviews have been conducted by a dedicated group of volunteers who are passionate about the program. A smaller segment of NAV named Interwoven includes a few interviews conducted by museum staff of persons with mixed Nordic and Native American heritage. This year, a segment of interviews has focused on the pandemic both locally and in the Nordic countries.

My first interview was with Andreas (Andy) Færøy, the 92-year-old seafarer who was a crew member on one of the “Shetland Bus” boats transporting munitions and equipment from Britain to Norway for the resistance during World War II. Andy spoke non-stop for almost two hours without missing a detail of his experiences, all names of persons and places clear in his mind. His story was powerful and will forever remain with me. It had special meaning for me since I grew up in Norway 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle and have many childhood memories from this period. His story also filled in many missing details of the war information as portrayed in most history records.

But how has NAV recruited more than 850 people to share their life stories? To begin, the volunteer steering committee had extensive community connections providing dozens of potential narrators. When contacted, almost all were graciously eager to participate. Most interviews were conducted at the museum. We also reached out to Nordic fraternal groups and were invited to several regional organizations to conduct interviews on site. By now, we have visited groups in Kennewick, Bellingham, Lopez Island, Stanwood, Camano Island, Mount Vernon, Whidbey Island, Auburn, Tacoma, Poulsbo, Aberdeen, and Naselle in Washington state.

What happens with completed interviews? A transcript of the archival material is produced and sent to the narrator for spelling corrections and clarifications of foreign words and place names. We want to ensure the transcript clearly reveals the narrator’s memory and voice telling about his or her role and experience at a specific event. Following this step, the final transcript and video are mailed to the narrator. Frequently, family members will report learning details never heard before and being thrilled to have valuable information, often asking to buy copies of the narrator’s DVD. For posterity, all interviews are archived at the National Nordic Museum, with a portion now publicly available; all will eventually be downloadable on the museum’s website.

There have been many exciting interviews that make us appreciate that we can participate in this valuable program at the National Nordic Museum. For the families of our narrators, these stories complete and enhance many families’ genealogical research and knowledge.

For more information or to suggest an interview for NAV, please contact: Mari-Ann Kind Jackson,

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 25, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Mari-Ann Kind Jackson

Mari-Ann Kind Jackson is an active member of the National Nordic Museum in Seattle and the Norwegian community in Ballard.