September 11, 2019

Voices of Princeton Oral History Project Invites Princetonians to Share Their Stories

SHARING STORIES: Princeton Public Library staff members, from left, Kim Dorman, community engagement coordinator; Kristen Friberg, readers’ services librarian; and Nora Walsh, public programming associate, are shown in the Princeton Room of the library as they recreate a Voices of Princeton recording session, acting as facilitator, interviewer, and interviewee.

By Jean Stratton

It is not just world events, revolutions, battles, and long lists of dates. History, most of all, is stories. It is about individual people, their lives, their attitudes, their achievements, their challenges and struggles.

History provides perspective and continuity. What was different? What was the same? What endures?

Princeton, with its own long history, including a battle helping to turn the tide of the American Revolution, home of a prominent university, and a robust diversity in its population, abounds with stories.

Now, its residents have an opportunity to share their own histories through the Voices of Princeton (VOP) Oral History Project, which includes recorded interviews. These will be archived through the VOP organization, a collaboration of the Historical Society of Princeton, the Princeton Public Library, the Arts Council of Princeton, and the Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society.

Community Benefit

“We hope to be a benefit to the community and offer people an opportunity to learn about their neighbors and a part of Princeton history through their stories,” says Hannah Schmidl, VOP website administrator and interview facilitator.

“The initial meeting involved stakeholders from the Public Library, the Arts Council, and the Historical Society (HSP), but the project has expanded,” notes Izzy Kasdin, HSP executive director. “Starting a community-wide oral history project was the brainchild of Library Trustee Pam Wakefield.

“After we discussed what the project could look like, HSP’s curator Stephanie Schwartz, myself, Hannah Schmidt from the library, and then Princeton University history graduate student Richard Anderson started convening to take the concrete steps necessary to launch the project.

“We’re really looking forward to working with our partner organizations like the Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society (WJHCS), to spread the word and ensure that the project has the broadest possible reach in the community. These partners are essential in helping us collect a diverse array of stories. WJHCS also helped spread the word when we were recruiting volunteer facilitators.”

Historian and longtime Princeton resident Shirley A. Satterfield, president of WJHCS, has been a supporter of VOP from the beginning.

“The assistance of the Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society is to support the Voices of Princeton project through interviews,” she explains. “The mission of VOP is similar to the WJHCS’s mission to preserve the history of Princeton residents. WJHCS predominantly focuses on the history and heritage of African Americans in Princeton.”

Rich History

“I feel that WJHCS partners with VOP because of the rich history and service that so many African Americans have had in the Princeton community since the 18th century,” continues Satterfield. “We are able to encourage many African American residents to tell their stories and that of their ancestors. WJHCS’s mission is also to network with other organizations and individuals in Princeton whose mission is to uplift and share the history of those residents whose voices have yet to be heard.”

Satterfield was instrumental in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood’s recognition as the 20th Historic District in Princeton, and she also leads a walking tour of the neighborhood. She points out another connection between WJHCS and VOP.  Regarding the former, she notes, “I envisioned an organization that would continue the journey of preserving and sharing the rich history of colored, Negro, black, African American life in Princeton.

“As the historian, my role in the community is to promote the history, struggle, advancements, contributions and respect for the existence of a proud people who, through segregation, Jim Crowism, separation, and hardship, kept the faith, and had the dignity and perseverance to maintain and sustain not only our neighborhood, but the town of Princeton.

“Through the mission of VOP, all willing Princeton residents are welcomed to meet with a trained interviewer to share the stories of their life experiences and that of their families, and ancestors as well as their contributions in and to the town of Princeton. As a result of their life-sharing, people in Princeton, visitors, historians, and researchers will have access to the stories of the lives of Princeton residents.”

Sample Questions

VOP encourages residents to participate and points out that no previous interview experience is needed. Guidance is provided to help prepare for the interview, and a facilitator is on hand to assist during the interview session.

Through the project website, two people who know each other may sign up for an interview time. After they register, they will be matched with a well-trained facilitator, who will operate the recording equipment and handle the logistics so the two participants can focus on the interview without distractions.

If the participants want help framing questions, VOP will provide a series of sample questions as well as themes and key ideas. Interview sessions usually last one to two hours, and take place at the Princeton Public Library. After the interview, the recording will be made available through the VOP website, and will be archived at the Historical Society of Princeton.

VOP not only offers Princeton residents the opportunity to share their stories but also serves as a partner with other organizations interested in preserving oral histories.

“VOP can be a meeting point for other oral history projects,” explains Schmidl. “For example, the American Legion’s 100th anniversary offers an opportunity for oral history.”

“Unifying all of Princeton’s oral histories in one place makes the historical record even richer,” adds Kasdin. “We wanted to build something that could be sustainable beyond just the project team. Often, oral history projects fizzle out after leadership changes, and we wanted this to be a community initiative.”

Making the recordings easily accessible for the community was an important objective, she points out. “To make the oral histories searchable and useful for listeners and researchers, we have our facilitators identify key words that have come up in the conversation from a standard list, and then these are tagged in the interview.

“We are proud to be building a sustainable infrastructure for the collecting and recording of stories. Such a collaborative and long-lasting way of capturing recollections whenever the opportunity or need arises has not existed in Princeton for quite some time. We’re thrilled to be launching this project with our community partners.”

Partner Projects

VOP also has Partner Projects, reports Schmidl. One of them is UNOW & Then, an oral history project in collaboration with University NOW Day Nursery, Princeton University graduate students, and community members, states the organization. UNOW was founded by the local chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), and its first nursery center was at Princeton University in the 1970s.

“Its founders had a radical vision for the time, with gender equality and anti-sex stereotyping at the program’s core,” continues the statement. “The nursery provided full-day hours so that women, especially single mothers, could attend college or work. The founders viewed child care as a profession that performed valuable work — not simply as a ‘women’s issue.’

“In 2020, UNOW will celebrate its semi centennial. UNOW & Then has a rich story to tell.”

Richard Anderson, cofounder and one of four coordinators of the VOP project, was also a UNOW & Then project cofounder. “UNOW & Then is the first Voices of Princeton partner project,” he explains. “The project will explore the first 50 years of UNOW’s history, leading up to its 50th anniversary.

“We’re conducting interviews with founders, current and former teachers, and current and former students and parents. We will eventually produce a website combining, among other components, audio interviews and small digital history exhibits exploring how UNOW’s story brings together the histories of Princeton, second-wave feminism, and the history of childcare.

“The centerpiece of the project is our effort to highlight and preserve the voices and experiences of the women — some of whom called themselves feminists and some of whom did not — who built UNOW and the women for whom UNOW provided opportunities to work outside the home and more generally to chart new paths for themselves. They helped change the university and the town.”

Highlight and Preserve

“We decided that VOP could also provide a ready-made structure for local organizations and community groups to conduct oral history projects,” continues Anderson. “So a local church might want to interview longtime members in conjunction with an anniversary, but they might not know how to proceed, how to preserve the recordings, or how to make the interviews accessible to the public. We provide a sort of ‘tool kit’ for training interviewers on best practices, ethics, and copyright, and preservation of materials, and we also host the audio recordings on the Princeton Public Library website.

“Hosting audio can be tricky if you don’t have a website or don’t have someone maintaining the website long-term. UNOW & Then already had a structure and a system for training interviewers, but since I bridged both projects, we decided this would make a good first VOP partner project.”

Anderson believes the partnership between the two organizations will allow UNOW & Then to expand its audience. “Our partnership with Voices of Princeton reinforces UNOW’s place as a vital institution in town with a history that relates to some of the biggest changes the town and University have witnessed since 1970: the advent of coeducation at the University, the entry of women into the University’s faculty, the expansion of paid employment opportunities for women, and the professionalization of child care and early childhood education.

“For VOP, the partnership gives a rich example of what the community oral history projects can do — foster conversations about the relationship between the past and the present, explore our community’s values, bright spots, and shortcomings, and encourage us to think about how to shape our community’s future.

“For example, the digital history exhibits will touch on the unsuccessful efforts of the National Organization for Women and lawmakers like Shirley Chisholm and Bella Abzug to establish a universal child care program in the early 1970s. So the exhibit will spur visitors to ask what needs to happen in the next 50 years for every town to have a terrific child care center like UNOW with a justly-compensated staff.”

Dynamic Approach 

The collaboration of the Arts Council of Princeton is also an important contribution to VOP, adds Kasdin. “During the planning process, the Arts Council was very interested in being able to use the stories collected to inspire art or performance, and we see them as an invaluable partner in helping us think about the best things to do with the oral histories once we collect them. For example, can we merge them into podcasts by theme? We will depend on the Arts Council’s creativity. The participants give their consent for their stories to be interpreted in this way.

“I think that each participating organization brings different interests to the table, which leads to a dynamic approach. For the Historical Society, our goal was to continue to add to the historical record that we preserve, encourage Princeton residents to participate in that collecting process, bring awareness to our existing historical collections, and ensure that oral history projects around the community have the resources they need to achieve best practices, and be preserved for posterity.

“And, our definition of what a ‘Princeton Story’ is is broad. We want to capture Princeton in all of its remarkable diversity.”

Share Stories

The first interview was held in May of 2018, and so far, 20 interviews have been recorded, with people of all backgrounds and ages represented, reports Hannah Schmidl. More are being scheduled in the next months.

“It is such a nice opportunity for participants to reminisce and share their stories,” she points out. “It often reminds them of things they hadn’t thought about, and they find they enjoy telling their stories and want to share them.”

Stories are indeed a wonderful way to communicate; everyone has a story, and everyone likes to hear a story.

Who else is out there with a tale to tell?

To learn more about Voices of Princeton, visit the website: