Pratice Interview Reflections (Pt 1)

I’ve responded to your individual reflections with comments. Please check those out, since different comments respond to many of your differing observations and concerns. Here I just wanted to say that I’ve been pleased with the way the practice interviews have gone so far. Everyone’s done a good job. Among other things, I’m very glad we have Sharon’s memory of smelling the spring earth when she was a young girl (and her sense that that smell connects with Williamsburg’s farming history), and I’m very glad we have Barbara’s memories of her early encounters with Williamsburg. It’s also terrific that we have two accounts of the contentious farm/fish market that used to be over near the post office. That seems worth following up with more research.

As many of you are observing, the–or at least a–challenge of the oral history interview is that it is a hybrid: it seeks personal information and contextual/historical information, information that is directly related to the interviewer’s research agenda and information that the interviewer wants to convey. While you’re interviewing you always want to keep this sense of mixture or balance in mind. Now that you’ve done a little interviewing, go back and review Portelli and see if any new things jump out at you.

A few small critical observations about the first two interviews: With Sharon, especially since she is native to Williamsburg, it would have been fruitful to give her more follow-up questions that asked her to give details of her Williamsburg past. (Of course, this is another balance issue: Within the limits of my time, do I ask follow up questions that get more detail but sacrifice scope?) It would have been great, too, to ask her memories of desegregation, since restaurants were key sites of formalized segregation and the struggle to desegregate. That’s uncomfortable territory (though I’m confident Sharon would have gone there with us). With Barbara: She made several passing comments about her experiences of being a woman in Williamsburg in certain eras (and before and elsewhere–e.g., her comment that her mother didn’t like to cook… I would have loved to hear where she and her parents went out to eat in her rural Pennsylvania communities) that had a complex sort of push-pull tone (to me). On the one hand, she seemed to be inviting more detailed queries about this topic, about her sense of her difference, her struggles to express this difference, etc. On the other hand, this seemed to be tender territory, so the invitation seemed maybe a little qualified and would have had ot be taken up carefully…. but it is a line that really jumped out of the conversation for me (it came up in several different contexts), and I wish we could have pursued it a bit–especially since, it seems to me (and as she perhaps implied), food is strongly gendered in much of our culture.

All that said: Very good work. Let’s keep it up.


The Williamsburg Documentary Project (WDP) strives to collect and preserve the rich past of Williamsburg, Virginia. By conducting oral history interviews, building physical and digital archives, and creating online exhibits, the WDP interprets Williamsburg’s recent past. The WDP works towards developing a better understanding of Williamsburg by bringing together individuals, local groups, Colonial Williamsburg, and the College of William & Mary.

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