Meet Our Visible Lives Oral History Project Volunteers!
This is a guest post by Joanne Dillon, interviewer for Visible Lives: Oral Histories of the Disability Experience at Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library.
Meet Our “Visible Lives” Volunteers
The New York Public Library’s Visible Lives: Oral Histories of the Disability Experience project at Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library has a great group of volunteers, over 55 strong. What motivates these dedicated people? What advice do they have to offer those thinking about volunteering with the project? To find out, we spoke with three volunteer interviewers.
Joel Fram, a freelance writer, was one of the earliest volunteers for Visible Lives, which kicked off in October 2014. Since then, he’s conducted nine conversations with individuals whose disabilities included blindness and deafness. Joel learned about the project on the NYPL website and signed up. “I thought this would be a good way to use my skills,” he said. Joel offers this advice for those who may be hesitant about interviewing: “There’s nothing to fear. Just treat the occasion less like a formal interview—and more like a conversation.” Joel does suggest being prepared with some questions in case a conversation should stall. “And don’t be shy about asking a storyteller to elaborate on a point,” he advises. “If your curiosity has been piqued by something a storyteller says, chances are those listening online will want to know more details, too.”
Like Joel, Monica Diaz volunteered with the Visible Lives project at its outset. Initially, Monica was nervous about her role as an interviewer. “I didn’t want to ask inappropriate questions,” she explains. A sociologist, Monica called on her professional training to help her overcome her anxiety. “I do some research ahead of each interview, so I know a bit about what the storyteller has been facing,” she explains. The Chicago native offers this suggestion for fellow interviewers: let the conversation evolve. What would she do if a storyteller was giving only one word answers? “Pause the recorder and let the person know details are important. Remind the individual they are helping document part of history.” With six interviews completed so far, Monica believes that the experience has expanded her own perceptions. “There are so many ways people experience the world,” she says. “This is helping me become a more tolerant person.”
Lynne Luxton believes everyone has a story to tell. Lynne had previously volunteered with a support group for the blind, but conducting oral history interviews was a new experience. Lynne, who has completed seven interviews to date, believes the interviewer plays the role of facilitator. Three elements help shape Lynne’s conversations. She gives her storytellers ample time to prepare, sending questions in advance of the interview. She asks about common experiences, such as traveling or family life. And she’s always prepared to listen. “Just let the storyteller talk,” she advises. Her thoughtful approach has resulted in some very interesting experiences. One very organized storyteller came prepared with detailed notes typed in Braille, and another, who talked about advocacy efforts, and recited original poems to open and close the interview. “Give a storyteller the opportunity to be heard,” says Lynne. “You’ll be amazed at what you learn.”
Interested in sharing your story, collecting stories, or both? Please contact Alexandra Kelly at AlexandraKelly@nypl.org or 212-621-0552. There are two upcoming on April 30 and May 2. More information about orientation.