Oral History Making History

Genealogy research has become a popular hobby in the past decade. This interest -- coupled with ever-lower prices for camcorders -- has resulted in a rapid growth in video-based oral history. Getting grandma and grandpa on tape for more than the occasional "home video op" has taken on a whole new meaning. Their stories about growing up, surviving the Depression, fighting World War II, and building a strong post-war U.S. are now being recorded for posterity. The combination of genealogy and oral history give a family a true and personalized appreciation for the past -- one that can help children and grandchildren shape realistic goals for the future. "If grandpa did it, I can too!" has been involved with video-based oral history since the early 1970s when MPL started documenting performers and craftsmen at the Smithsonian Institution's annual Folklife Festival on the Mall. Under a 1976 grant from the Bureau of Indian Affairs MPL launched the Native American Videotape Archives project as part of this country's Bicentennial celebration. This archives, which is housed at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, NM, now includes over 8000 tapes featuring Native Americans relating tribal stories and customs, showcasing costumes and ornamentation, and demonstrating art techniques and dancing. Native Americans representing tribes from throughout the U.S shot all source videotapes.

In 1994 Mattingly was tapped by the Federal Judicial Center to help the U.S. Supreme Court launch its video oral history documentation of sitting Justices. MPL taped Harry A. Blackmun, who sat on the bench for 24 years, one week before his retirement. Based on that model, the Media Center of the Federal Judicial Center has continued the videotaping process, with resulting tapes stored at the Library of Congress.

Recently received two grants - one from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the other from the Scott Opler Foundation -- to assist the Steamboat Era Museum in Irvington, Virginia in setting up its oral history center. The Steamboat Era on the Chesapeake Bay ended in 1937, but the community still has eyewitnesses to this bygone time. Most are in their 80s and 90s.

Under the grants MPL will, first, develop a system for logging and indexing footage, and then hold workshops to train teachers and interested community members in the techniques of interviewing subjects for archival purposes.

Web-Based Training - Putting Environment, Safety and Health Online

Over the past two years, Mattingly has been working on an exciting project that is yielding positive results for the Immigration and Border Patrol branches of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Contracted to install 24 of its OSHA Environmental, Safety and Health interactive programs on the DHS intranet. The courses, originally CD-based, were converted to formats that could be integrated with the client's learning management system. An audit of the DHS field computers indicated that there were some differences in equipment, which affected the conversion. In addition to modifications to the actual courseware, changes also had to be made to the administrative side, or the portion of the software that keeps track of student assessments, scores, registration, etc.

The web-based training (WBT) courses were up and running within a year. However there was still a lot of "tweaking" to do by both MPL and the client. For instance, customized upgrades were requested, such as a printable certificate of completion, agency logos, and a vehicle for collecting and analyzing user comments and questions.

One of the factors that influenced DHS to purchase the courseware was the variety of instructional elements used to present information. These included:

  • Scenarios

  • Games ("Jeopardy", "Family Feud" and other popular game shows that were emulated to make learning interesting and fun.)

  • Point and click 

  • Task simulations

  • Embedded questions

  • End of segment quizzes

  • Animation

These types of elements are what can really give strength to WBT courseware. As one user pointed out, "We actually look forward to getting online and taking the courses. Not only do we learn but you also 

Library of Congress Makes Mattingly-Produced 
Blackmun Videotapes Available to Public

"This is the Justice Harry A. Blackmun oral history. This is taping session number one, on July 6, 1994. I'm Harold Koh. I'm a professor at Yale Law School, and clerked for Justice Blackmun in October term, 1981."

Thus began the on-camera reminiscences of a Supreme Court Justice who remained on the court for 24 years. One week after Blackmun retired, Grayson Mattingly of Mattingly Productions, now of Irvington, VA, was contracted by the Federal Judicial Center (FJC) to commence the Blackmun video-based oral history project and produce the first 8 hours. FJC staff than continued to record Blackmun and Koh interviews every couple of weeks for the next 17 months.

The Library of Congress made the resulting 38 hours of videotaped oral history, plus 1,500 boxes of Blackmun's court papers, available to the public on March 4, 2004, exactly five years after Blackmun's death and the naming of Koh as the new Dean of Yale Law School. The release of these materials received wide attention from the media, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Public Radio, and the PBS News Hour.

Appointed to the Court by President Nixon in 1970, Blackmun believed that being a Justice was "a lonely job despite the fact that we sit as a group of nine." Eight of the current nine Justices served with him. Most of the important social issues of our day - abortion, the death penalty, the right to privacy, federalism, the First Amendment - play out both in the papers and videotapes. A front page article in the March 5th issue of the Washington Post says the Blackmun collection affords "an excellent view into the court's personalities and private arguments, " and "shows the extraordinary labor involved in mustering a majority on some decisions." The day of their release, a "flood of scholars and journalists" began rummaging through the materials.

Grayson Mattingly was tapped to spearhead the video documentation because he wrote, also under the auspices of the Federal Judicial Center, the original guidelines for videotaping depositions for the federal courts. He is founder and president of Mattingly Productions, which was the oldest video and multimedia company in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. The company relocated to Irvington, Virginia in 2001.

Video Company Producing TV Series in Irvington

house 2 Mattingly Productions of Irvington, Virginia is currently producing a 13-part video series, The House as History, which documents the restoration and remodeling of one of the oldest homes in Lancaster County, "Wilder's Grant" in Irvington, VA. The property, part of an original land grant going back to 1732, consists of seven acres and a small Federal "planter's cottage" built sometime between that date and the mid-1700s.

The series features the design considerations, construction procedures, and building materials used to modernize and enlarge a historic house. Since the property has waterfrontage on Bridge Cove off Carter's Creek, the series also focuses on environmental concerns covered under the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act. The use of heirloom and indigenous plants will also be addressed.

Documentation this month follows the procedures required to move the house, which currently has no water view, approximately 150 yards closer to Bridge Cove. Expert House Movers of Virginia Beach, the premier house moving company in the East, will undertake this portion of the project. After the move, a full basement will be constructed under the existing house, and main floor remodeled, and a small addition added. Auger Construction of White Stone is the general contractor.

house1Future plans include building another larger addition, designing and planting a potager a French-style garden combining flowers, vegetables, and herbs and constructing a greenhouse from old French doors and windows salvaged from the house.

A particular aspect of the series will be to show how lifestyles in the past influenced certain design and construction decisions, and to contrast that with present day needs and concerns. "To a large extent, this truly is a Federal cottage becoming an electronic cottage. Although we will try to honor the architecture, we're not total purists. We're addressing the role technology can play and handling the whole thing rather eclectically," says Suzanne Mattingly, the series writer, researcher, and interviewer.

A video producer, production designer, and art director for the past 20 years, Suzanne is an interior designer by training. Her goal: "Once the series is placed, I'll feel rewarded if some of our viewers feel like they can do it, too. They can take an old house and make it a comfortable, modern home. Virginia is filled with wonderful historic and vernacular structures just waiting to be rescued. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has a wonderful slogan I love to quote, Old Friends Are Worth Keeping.' I hope our viewers will want to locate, rescue, and live in a piece of history,"

Teamboat Era Stories Go Online

Starting with a blast from a real steamboat whistle Internet users can now return to the time when steamboats plied the Bay. The Steamboat Era Museum of Irvington recently launched a website, Steamboat Explore, that provides users with a series of short, streaming video stories extracted from the museum's video-based oral history archives, a collection consisting of 60-plus hours of interviews with eyewitnesses to the steamboat era. All the segments have been edited and enhanced with archival stills and B-roll.

Story titles include Introduction to Steamboats, The Steamboat is Coming, Activity on the Wharf, Dockside Adventure, Steamboat Traveler, Accommodations and Services, The Captain and the Crew, The Adams Floating Theatre, and The End of an Era. There are three additional oral histories -- Cannon Hill, A Good Deed, and A Close Call - that are third generation. They provide a fascinating glimpse of this region during the Civil War, and will be used in the museum's upcoming exhibit The Bay At War.

"The overall goal of the website project is to pass on real-life experiences that bring the history of this region "up close and personal," states Steamboat Era Museum Director Terri Thaxton. "Using the Internet is a good way for a small regional museum to share resources and make an impact." In addition to the stories the site also contains educational support materials that can be used by teachers of grades K thru 12. All the materials have been designed to meet the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs).

"We faced a number of challenges in creating the archives, " admits project director Grayson Mattingly. "As with many oral history projects, getting first person accounts is becoming more difficult. Plus we need to provide the public with recorded materials that are accessible, usable, and educational. Not everyone will watch an entire one-or two-hour interview. Editing and visually enhancing the stories provides a solution to this challenge. But researchers who want more in-depth information can consult thorough logs of the entire interviews."
The project -- now in its third year -- has been supported by funding from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, The Verizon Foundation, and the Scott Opler Foundation.
"Our work has just started." says Mattingly, "We are still in the process of collecting interviews, and in the upcoming months will be adding to the number of stories provided online. Keeping the past alive is what it is all about!"