Town Meeting Day in Marshfield included an unusual addition this year. In a classroom, off to the side from the main attraction, where our town still sits down to discuss local business in the Twinfield School cafeteria, was a professional interview space. Two stools sat in the middle of the room, serving as the focal point for a video camera on a tripod, microphones, and lighting equipment. Here, several Marshfield residents were working together to capture stories from the town’s people.
As residents trickled into the meeting throughout the morning, several of them stopped off to be interviewed. Their shared stories are being collected as part of a town-wide effort to document the town’s history. Marshfield’s Story Project, as it is officially known, aims to preserve Marshfield’s community memory through interviews with residents across generations, which are collected into video recordings and added to the online digital archive at the Vermont Historical Society’s website, called Digital Vermont.
“It’s a way to preserve the collective history of our community,” said project coordinator Tracey Hambleton, in between interviews. She was joined by Marshfield residents Jean and Paul Haskell, who have personal and professional expertise in interviewing and videography, respectively.
Jean agreed that collecting these stories was important and, in fact, she has contributed to other similar efforts in town. She recently helped transcribe interviews of residents from a particular section of town, called Hollister Hill, for the second edition of a book that tells the stories of this particular neighborhood.
The Marshfield Story project came about through a grant to Jaquith Public Library from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, through its Accelerating Promising Practices for Small Libraries initiative that was launched in 2018. The agency received applications from 114 organizations that requested grants totaling $4,931,919, and the IMLS selected 30 grantees who received a total of $1,286,581, with award sizes ranging from $10,000 to $50,000. Marshfield’s own award provided $42,967, over the course of two years, for development of the Marshfield Story Project.
The grants were designed to strengthen the ability of small and rural libraries to improve services, including by launching community memory projects like Marshfield’s. “Small libraries are the backbones of so many communities across the U.S.,” said Cyndee Landrum, deputy director of library services, in a press release from the IMLS. “The first awards under this special initiative will address the unique needs that tribal, rural and small libraries have identified, investing in new, promising practices on a national scale.” Marshfield’s particular project, for example, uses modern technology to collect stories that tell about life in small, rural town.
Marshfield’s story project started with a workshop in December, 2019, at the Hap Hayward History Center, located inside the Jaquith Public Library in the Old Schoolhouse building in Marshfield Village. Ten people attended the workshop led by Andy Kolovos of the Vermont Folklife Center, where Kolovos provided background on oral history, talked about ways to collect stories, and demonstrated interview techniques.
Then, on the evening of December 17, project leaders held a community meeting to share more detailed information about the Marshfield Story Project. Although the weather was not good that night, 12 hardy participants enjoyed pizza and a presentation about the project, followed by some lively discussion. It was from this conversation that the idea came to include the pop-up interview booth at town meeting.
Only one interview had been recorded and edited prior to town meeting, and it played on a loop on a laptop sitting on a table in front of the classroom where interviews were taking place. In it, Kathryn Trupin and her son Michael talk about what life was like when she grew up in Marshfield Village in the earlier portion of the 1900s. She talked about farm life, her chores, the tools they used, and the blacksmith shop that used to be in town.
Marshfield is one of several towns in the state that have worked to preserve their towns’ histories by sharing and collecting stories from residents. “A lot of local societies have reached out to residents to preserve their town’s history,” says Paul Carnahan, a librarian with the Vermont Historical Society. “The methods have changed over the years, but the goal is usually the same.”
The Fair Haven Historical Society completed a project involving oral histories, which was inspired by residents in Benson who had undertaken a similar project. Fair Haven turned their stories into a book called “Fair Haven Memories.” In Canaan, the town historical society undertook a video-based oral history project a couple of years ago, which they turned into an edited DVD. Many other towns in Vermont are currently in the process of collecting their residents’ stories, too.
Eileen Corcoran, outreach and media coordinator with the VHS, says there are a couple of reasons why local historical societies and other community groups are embracing this type of community memory or oral history project.
“One part is the desire to be more proactive about ‘saving’ history,” she says. “I think there is a wider realization that the 20th century is, in fact, ‘history,’ and that the opportunity to collect and preserve first-person memories helps to enhance the more traditional historic record of objects and archives for the long-term.”
She says projects like Marshfield’s are also a great way to bring communities together, as well as different groups within a community. In Marshfield, for example, there is an emphasis on stories that bring together multiple generations, like parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, or mentors and mentees. These conversations have the benefit of fostering intergenerational dialogue and understanding, says Corcoran. “It was similar at Fair Haven, where they involved students at the elementary school in collecting the oral histories,” she adds. Plus, story projects like these ones increase the diversity of stories that are told, by actively collecting stories rather than passively collecting a diary from someone who happened to keep one, for example.
Carnahan says that Marshfield is unique among these towns because the town received a federal grant to collect the stories, and the town is using newer recording technology and access tools than some other towns have used. “It is pretty unusual for a local historical society to get a federal grant,” he said. The town will be working with the VHS to put images and oral histories onto Digital Vermont, the statewide digital archive that VHS is developing. “That is unusual, too, I think,” adds Carnahan.
Digital Vermont, at digitalvermont.org, is a project of the VHS featuring selected archival materials from both the state library’s own collections and those of partner organizations.
The website uses a free, open-source web publishing platform, called Omeka, that is specifically designed to power library and archival websites. The site currently includes 875 images, 53 oral-history interviews, and 250 paper-based scanned items, though Marshfield’s items are not yet published. Adding scans of historic images from the Marshfield Historical Society and the video interviews collected from the Marshfield Story Project seemed to staff at VHS to be a logical “next step” in the VHS’s efforts to capture and share Vermont’s history.
In the days ahead, Marshfield residents can look forward to Community Memory Days, in which residents will be invited to bring old photos of Marshfield to the library and have them scanned for inclusion in Marshfield Historical Society Archives. Plus, there will be gatherings to share Marshfield stories with others and opportunities for video and interview sessions to record our stories and discussions. For more information visit https://www.jaquithpubliclibrary.org/marshfield-story-project.html and http://digitalvermont.org/