A Personal Reflection on the Value of Oral Histories


In honor of Women's History Month, a note from our Librarian & Archivist, Trenton Carls:

"Doris Helen McNeely Wankel. An obscure Cape Ann Artist you’ve never heard of? No. In fact, Doris has never lived on Cape Ann; never summered on Cape Ann; never even visited Cape Ann! Born in Morgan County, Illinois in 1931, Doris has had countless roles: village historian & author, dime store employee, secretary, cook, bank teller, postmaster, treasurer, historic reenactor, horseback rider, wife, mother, and most important to me, grandmother. So you see, there is a Cape Ann connection! 

With news coming out that many assisted living housings would be shutting their doors to visitors during the Covid-19 outbreak, our family began thinking of ways to make sure Doris had enough to do and keep her entertained. So much of her day-to-day is filled with either visiting or being visited, that this new way of life is sure to be a difficult one. Unfortunately, Doris’ vision isn’t what it once was, and she’s depleted the local public library of their collection of audio books, so we had to think outside the box. Luckily, her daughter (my mom) Bonny, is a genius. Yesterday afternoon I get a phone call that starts, “What do you know about Oral Histories?” Turns out I know a little bit, being a librarian and whatnot. She goes on to tell me how she’s found a low-price audio recorder that saves up to 45 hours of recorded audio and that she’s going to give it to grandma in hopes that she’ll put down some of her thoughts and stories over the coming weeks. Going further, we even came up with a plan for my Aunt, also a genius (it runs in the family, you see), to post a prompt on Facebook, asking friends and families which of Grandma Wankel’s stories they’d like her to tell. 

This temporary new way of life can be difficult, strange, and even scary at times. But it’s also a chance for us to slow down and remember what makes this life important in the first place. I won’t always have my grandma, but I hope to always be able to hear her tell the story about the time a bunch of pigs scared her horse, she got thrown, and then lounged around on the ground with a broken arm for a few hours until someone came along and asked if she needed a hand (pun definitely intended). 

So in the coming days and weeks, consider digging out that old tape recorder, finding a cheap digital recorder online, or even asking staff members at the assisted living housing to record a “session” on their smartphones and send it to you. Every story matters, and each of them are one more piece to putting together the Cape Ann puzzle."

To learn more about how to conduct an Oral History with family members, please visit the UCLA Library Center for Oral History Research’s in-depth guide here

The Cape Ann Museum Library & Archives holds a unique collection of Oral Histories that, in conjunction with its ongoing effort to promote access and discoverability, will be a key feature of our future online catalog. To find out more about the Library & Archives, visit our site here. And always feel welcome to contact our Librarian & Archivist during our email open hours of: 24/7, 365 at [email protected]

—Posted March 25, 2020, by Trenton Carls, Cape Ann Museum Librarian & Archivist


Doris Helen McNeely Wankel. Image courtesy of Trenton Carls.

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