By Mike Templeton
The 2024 meeting of the Oral History Association will be held in Cincinnati in October of this year. The theme of this 58th annual meeting is “Oral History: Bridging Past, Present, and Future,” and it will take place at the Cincinnati Netherland Plaza on October 30 through November 2. As we know, oral history is a vital part of Appalachian history and culture, and it continues to play an important part in urban Appalachian cultural life. We need only look to the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition’s Story Gathering Project as an example. I had an opportunity to speak with Troy Reeves of the Oral History Association to get more information on oral history, OHA, and the annual meeting, which traditionally “attracts a broad range of people and features the best work in the field” of oral history.
Troy Reeves has been a professional oral historian since 1999. First working for the Idaho State Historical Society, and, since 207, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives and Records Management, Reeves has been immersed in the study and practices of oral history. Reeves is of course a professional oral historian, but he told me he got his start as an undergraduate when he interviewed his grandmothers for a US History class. He explained that the “assignment both humanized my grandmothers to me as well as hooked me on the idea that if I were to be an historian, I wanted my work to include the voices of people who lived through an event or era.” At the heart of oral history, as Reeves points out, are the voices of ordinary people—people who can bear witness to history in ways the grand narratives cannot. This is the power of oral history and why it plays such a central role in Appalachian cultural life.
Troy Reeves was introduced to the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition by Ann Campbell Ritchie, who was once the curator of the University of Kentucky’s Appalachian Collection, and is a mutual friend of Reeves and Core Member Pauletta Hansel. I asked Reeves about the relationship between professional oral history projects and Appalachian culture. He told me that, while he is not Appalachian, “cultures like Appalachia with a strong history of storytelling and oral tradition lend themselves to doing oral history.” That said, Reeves is careful to make the distinction between oral history and oral tradition. “Oral history is primarily gathering and preserving first-hand accounts of a person or group’s life, while oral tradition is both first-hand and multi-generational,” explains Reeves. This distinction is crucial, especially when we begin looking at oral history as it is understood as a discipline within something like the Oral History Association.
Since this year’s meeting is centered on questions of oral history past, present, and future, I asked Troy Reeves about issues that impact oral history in our time such as the influence of technology on the field of oral history. Reeves said that there have obviously been tremendous advancements from the old open reel recorders that have “made it easier for oral historians to conduct interviews where ever and whenever…, but these advancements have “trade-offs from the intimacy of in-person to virtual, which has allowed our narrators—oral history’s preferred term for interviewees—the freedom to sit for an interview in a space and at a time that works for them.” The conclusion here appears to be similar to how technology has impacted may other fields: we have gained much, but we have also made sacrifices for these gains. These are the kinds of questions that will be explored in depth at this year’s meeting of the Oral History Association in Cincinnati.
Troy Reeves’s own scholarly concerns center on things like environmental, social, and political history projects. He remains primarily concerned with issues that pertain to the geographical areas where he has worked in Idaho and Wisconsin. But there is an old adage about these kinds of concerns: all politics is local, and perhaps this holds true for the oral historian. The annual meeting will bring people like Troy Reeves and many others together to explore almost anything that falls under the umbrella of oral history in our time, times past, and what may come. The deadline to submit a proposal is February 23, so there is still time to get involved. A full description and link are below, but I will tell you that the OHA directs people to places that could fall under the oral historical importance of greater Cincinnati, something our own people who study the urban Appalachian oral tradition should consider.
The field of oral history, though by no means specific to Appalachian culture and life, is something that has served to preserve much of Appalachian history. Our access to things like miner’s struggles, the Appalachian horse librarians, and even the presence and impact of urban Appalachians in greater Cincinnati have come to us through oral traditions that have taken on the consistency of oral history. The Urban Appalachian Community Coalition is currently working on a proposal for a panel to include our own Urban Appalachian Story Gathering Project as well as Miami University-Hamilton Faculty member Matthew Smith and Ashley Hopkins’s Peck’s Addition Project and Amanda Jo Slone’s The Appalachian Way, all of which have been featured on this blog. We also hope to feature the Perceptions of Home traveling exhibit at the conference.
We can thank people like Troy Reeves for continuing to make this field of study such a vital part of the patchwork of culture. We will look for and welcome the folks from the Oral History Association here in Cincinnati this fall. Maybe one or two of them will take a shine to urban Appalachia while they are here.
General information on the Oral History Association annual meeting can be found at this link: https://oralhistory.org/annual-meeting/. For information on submitting a proposal, click this link: https://oralhistory.org/call-for-proposals/. Note also the link to proposal submission guidelines for information about the types of proposals requested. https://oralhistory.org/submission-guidelines/.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He is the author of The Chief of Birds: A Memoir, available from Erratum Press, and Impossible to Believe, forthcoming from Iff Books. Check out his profile in UACC’s Cultural Directory. He lives in West Milton, Ohio with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city and the country snapping photos. She looks up at the grandeur above, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.