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Collecting Oral Histories Topic Of Middlesex County Museum Program

In the course of a 40-year career as a historian, Dr. Betsy Brinson has collected hundreds of oral histories from people all over the world.

“Oral history doesn’t pay the bills,” she said recently, speaking from her home in Richmond. “To do that, I’ve worked in administration and teaching, but I keep doing the oral histories on the side because I like getting to know the individuals. And I find their stories and experiences help me as an individual understand life better.”

Dr. Brinson will be in Saluda Saturday, Sept. 30, to teach a workshop on conducting oral history interviews. The program is being offered free by the Middlesex County Museum and Historical Society from 10 to noon. It is open to all, and registration is not required.

Oral histories are recorded to preserve family or institutional histories, and they be equally effective in doing both, according to Dr. Brinson. She cautions that before conducting the interviews, it’s important to do a little research even if that only means talking to other family members or friends.

“It helps you prepare your questions,” she said, “And you can often get an idea of what the important stories are likely to be so that you make sure you ask about them.”

Dr. Brinson, who received her doctoral degree in American History with a concentration on American social movements from the Union Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio, has focused much of her career on collecting histories from individuals involved in social causes ranging from civil and women’s rights to peace and AIDs.

She has received numerous honors including two national history awards from the Oral History Association and the American Association for State and Local History.

At her workshop in Saluda, she’ll be sharing some best practices for interviewing including how to handle potentially difficult situations.

“The stories people tell can be quite emotional,” she said. “People might find themselves telling you about things they haven’t thought about in years.”

Dr. Brinson has had people start to cry, and she advises turning off the recording equipment until the person being interviewed is ready to proceed. She’s also had some people decide to get in touch with old friends or family members they haven’t seen in a while to tie up loose ends.

Dr. Brinson has conducted hundreds of interviews, and she has also been interviewed herself twice, once by a colleague, and once by her granddaughter. She said being the interviewee was a good learning experience.

“It’s very different when someone else is asking the questions,” said Dr. Brinson. “There are places in your life you find you want to keep private. As an interviewer, you have to respect that.”

Workshop participants will have the opportunity to interview and be interviewed during the workshop. If you plan to attend, bring the equipment you would use to record interviews to the workshop.

To learn more, call the Middlesex Museum at 758-3663 or visit the website at middlesexmuseum.com.