Blaine County Museum set to launch an oral history project
January 24, 2024
Samantha (Sam) French, Director of the Blaine County Museum, recently described a plan to begin collecting oral histories in Blaine County. French, who came to the director's position about five years ago, said, "It's been my goal to do an oral history collection since I arrived at the museum. My hope is the folks who volunteer to do interviews will have contacts throughout the county."
If all goes well she hopes to have a major part of the interviews completed by the start of summer. She noted in a presentation recently to the Chinook Lions Club that, "Winter seems to be the best time to conduct interviews before summer activities and work schedules make it harder to schedule sessions with interviewees."
Director French is asking interested interviewers to complete a two-page form that contains interviewers contact data and a preferred way they may be reached. She plans to conduct training programs that will last from one to two hours in length for interviewers. Training, to be held sometime between February 1 and 17, will include interviewing etiquette, how to select and use interview questions and how to use the recording devices that will be available to preserve the interviews. The forms can be picked up at the museum at 501 Indiana in Chinook from 10-am to 6pm, Monday through Friday. That form needs to be completed and returned to the Blaine County Museum no later than "Monday, January 29th at 6PM!"
Also on the two-page form interviewers will be asked to name the person(s) they intend to interview, list the community or area in the county represented by their interviewee and the general subject or focus of their interview. French noted, "Some oral histories have a specific theme. This collection will be on general topics based on the experience and knowledge of each interviewee." The training will help volunteer interviewers to formulate questions that will elicit the desired information. It is important that the interviewers have some knowledge of the topic they will be asking about since that will help them formulate the most useful questions. Designing questions is a component of the training for interviewers.
While there will likely be many possible topics covered in the interviews, French listed a few that immediately came to her mind: ranching and farming; oil production and the oil refinery; sugar beets and the sugar beet factory; schools, rural and town; post-WWII Blaine County; economic development and changes in local governments. She pointed out, "This is not an exhaustive list. It's to illustrate the various topics so potential interviewers could say, "Oh, so and so would know about a specific topic, I'll ask them if I can interview them."" As a rule of thumb," French said, "most of the people that will be interviewed will likely be born in the 1930s or 40s.
Other points to consider
Sam French said, "Would be interviewers may be unsure about how to find or chose someone to interview." She went on to explain that often family members can be excellent sources since a potential interviewer may have already heard some of the stories that may be appropriate for an oral history. One of the Lions Club members who heard Sam's presentation remarked as he left the meeting, "I'm going to call my 92-year-old aunt. She would be perfect to interview for this project."
Another consideration when choosing a person to interview is accessibility. Will the interviewer need to go to the person to be interviewed and will there be a place to easily conduct an interview without distractions. Already several locations in the county are offering space to conduct interviews when necessary-like a vacant office or other quiet space. Sam French will have lists of interview spaces available and when. For those who must travel to an interview French is hoping to be able to cover some travel costs.
After the interviews are completed
Once the interviews are completed, hopefully by early summer, the Blaine County Museum staff will edit the interviews and submit digital versions to the Montana History Portal. Per its website, the Montana-based Portal "encourages the digitizing of historic and contemporary resources reflecting Montana's rich cultural heritage and to make them freely available for lifelong learning."
Director French added that with equipment the museum now has some versions of the data collected might be accessible here in our local museum as well as at the state level. If you need more information about the oral history project, call the Blaine County Museum at 406-357-2590, 10am-6pm on weekdays during the winter.