by Melissa Clifford, 2014 Kent State MLIS Museum Studies graduate student
What does it mean to be a volunteer? I used to ask myself that question a lot before I began working with the Oberlin Heritage Center. Previously I had done volunteer work but it was usually a one-day, one-time event. I had never had an on-going volunteer position. To me, a volunteer was the bottom of the totem pole grunt worker. You were basically the reserves that were called in to fill out space in a group. I was completely wrong. At the Oberlin Heritage Center, I have learned that a volunteer is a vital part of a team. You are the person that the staff relies on to complete projects that they cannot get to. You are the relief that can be called on when all other available docents are promised to other activities. Most importantly, you are a colleague that can be relied upon and you play a crucial role in the success of the museum.
I have been a volunteer at the OHC for a year now, and it is really hard for me to nail down just what we volunteers do here at the museum. Sometimes we are the tour guides that are greeting guests as they walk in for a tour. Other times we are the people out cleaning up leaves from walkways. We could also be the archivists working on preserving memories of times gone by. Essentially, we are flexible in roles and will do whatever is needed to further the museum’s mission. Most of my time has been spent preserving Oberlin’s history through the Oral History Project.
The Oberlin Oral History Project started in the late 1970s as a group effort to interview diverse people throughout Oberlin and to hear their personal stories. Most of the people interviewed were in their 80s, and could recollect what Oberlin was like in the 1890s and early 1900s. As time went on, more and more interviews were collected until there were eighty-one different interviews recorded, comprising approximately 170 hours of oral history. These interviews were conducted on cassette tapes, and while that media is fairly stable and it is unlikely that we will lose these memories anytime soon, it is still important to preserve them so that they can be enjoyed for generations to come. This is where I come in. The volunteers (including me!) at the Oberlin Heritage Center have been spending countless hours recording, saving, and converting these cassette tapes into digital sound files. Through this process our hope is that we can not only preserve these memories moving forward, but we can also use them to provide our patrons new and exciting programs and online features in the future. This helps the museum with some of its preservation work, but volunteers such as myself learn a lot along the way too. I’d like to share some of the cool pieces of information I’ve learned about Oberlin history by working on this project.
1. Transportation now is a lot different than it used to be:
“I started teaching then in Huntington, and father Sunday night would take me down to Brewster’s Corners because there was a streetcar line that went from Elyria down through Oberlin and then to Wellington, and I would get that car about 4:00 and get to Wellington, then there would be a bus in Wellington that would go down to Ashland that would take me to the center of Huntington and I would then do to Luke Chapman’s. And, so I stayed with Luke and Alta Chapman through the week, and then when Friday night came, why I could catch the bus and go to Wellington, then get the car from Wellington, to Brewster’s Corners and walk home.”—Mabel Brown, April 17, 1984
2. Matadors aren’t the only people who anger bulls:
“I remember one time I was watching a herd. I had on a red sweater and whatever I did I agitated a bull. I got up into a tree, but it was a real scary adventure. But they had a ring in his nose and the guys got to him and they managed to get a hold of that and get him back up into the herd.”—Delores Carter, January 24, 1987
3. Even the Oberlin elderly had a party line:
When asked about how older people spent their leisure time, “Oh, they didn’t have a whole lot. But what they did—they had no radio and no television, and the telephone was on the wall, and they’d crank up one or crank two, and everybody on the line was listening and so forth, but the people entertained themselves.”— Maynard Gott, June 23, 1986
These stories are just snippets from some of the wonderful history of Oberlin that I have been fortunate to listen in on. Other volunteers and authors have been able to use oral histories to write books. One good example of this is the book Bonnets to Boardrooms: Women’s Stories from a Historic College Town which was edited by Eugenia Poporad Vanek. She wrote this book after compiling oral history information from the same oral history materials that I’ve been working on! (If you’re interested, this book is available online or at the Oberlin Heritage Center’s museum shop).
To end this post, I believe that my volunteering has been a mutually beneficial experience. Sure, the Oberlin Heritage Center benefits from getting their tape collection digitized, but I think I benefit so much more. I get to listen to stories that bring to life Oberlin’s history. Now I can walk down the road and know that there used to be a bakery where Subway now is, or I can picture what Tappan Square was like before automobiles drove around it. Ultimately, that is the reward you get from being a volunteer, you learn to appreciate what is around you and you know you have completed meaningful work in the process.