Oral history interviews have become an important part of my research into local history. There simply is no substitute, especially for subjects that didn't get covered in the newspapers or other media, to hear about the past from someone who was there. In my interviews I hear some amazing stories, and hopefully get to use some of those stories in history books and articles. And if I don't, maybe somebody else will. Even when an interviewee doesn't tell the truth, the story they do tell can be illustrative of their values, their ideas, and their opinions.
The down side is that oral history interviews generally involve interviewing people who probably aren't going to be around for much longer.
One of the first people I ever interviewed was Jack Davis. Unlike more recent interviews, where I used a digital recorder, Jack's interview was pencil and paper, jotted down notes in the busy entrance lobby of the Railroad Museum, and a few follow-up remarks. I wrote about some of Jack's childhood in Sacramento in Sacramento's Streetcars, including his early jobs as a soda jerk and delivery boy in Sacramento's drugstores, and his education in local schools.
Jack was an engineer for Southern Pacific--not the sort who drove the train, but a civil engineer who planned right-of-way and gave the trains something to run on. He volunteered at the Railroad Museum for many years, giving tours and relaying his enormous knowledge of railroad operation.
Jack died the other day. He was a heckuva guy. I'm glad I got to know a little bit about him. I wish I had had the time to do more interviews, with a recorder. Of course, one assumes that he wouldn't have minded sticking around longer either...
Oral history interviewing is one of the crash-priority parts of history. Get the interview now; tomorrow they might be gone, and learning about their life becomes much harder, if not impossible. It's also a saddening thing to get to know these people, just regular folks with lives of success and disaster and routine, and then they're gone. But that's an inherent part of working with senior citizens, and the pain is more than compensated by the opportunity to learn about some of the richness of their lives--and being able to share some of those lives with others, through writing.
My books aren't best-sellers by any means, but I'm glad that maybe a few more people got a chance to meet Jack through his words in my book. Plenty of people will remember him, from friends and family and the other Railroad Museum docents to the thousands of people who went on his tours. If a few people meet him by way of my introduction, I figure that's a big part of my mission, as a writer and a historian.
'Scuse me. I've got to go get my recorder and make a few calls.