Listening to history…

Over my nearly three year tenure at the Idaho State Historical Society, I had the opportunity to work alongside some of the most passionate Historians in the state. I also had the opportunity to take part in other projects outside of my field, as well as perform projects of personal interest. Through this, I was able to witness others in their area of expertise and see first hand just how Idaho’s history was compiled.

I had met Ellen Haffner while a Historical Interpreter at the Old Idaho State Penitentiary. She had been employed at the archives as an Oral History Assistant, while also filling in at the Old Pen during my training and other staff changes. Currently, Ellen is a Research Assistant at the Idaho State Archives within the Idaho State Historical Society, a title which has broadened her work from Oral History into other archival based research methods.

Ellen’s path to work in public history started out as an internship in 2005 while seeking her undergraduate degree in History from Boise State. An internship is the most common path towards a position within a state agency, however there are still a few, myself included, who were able to gain a waged entry-level position. Originally attending Boise State to teach, her personal interest in audible history directed her down the career path she is currently on.

The day to day operations of a Research Assistant are broad, however strategically planned in order to assist the mission of the ISHS. While attending to the specific needs of the agency, Ellen is granted a certain level of freedom in how she pursues the goal. In the archives, there are paper documents, audio tapes, pictures, maps, architectural plans, and other forms of recorded history at her fingertips, and any combination of these can be used to acquire specific information requested of the ISHS.

What most people may not know, is Ellen and other employees of the archives are largely there to cater to the citizens of Idaho. The inquiry an archivist could be researching may have originated by anyone from a judge or lawyer trying to find further evidence in a case, to a curious citizen who wants to know more about one of their relatives. In the past few years, the Idaho State Historical Society, especially the archives, has been relying more heavily on catering to the general public. This commitment to getting citizens to walk through their doors and become interested in the various sites throughout the State will only help the sustainability of the various sites as well as the agency as a whole. The service of a professional Historian at the archives is free of charge; the only time they’ll request money of you is for a photocopy of any item you desire (and they are legally able to give).

While an employee, I was fortunate enough to be asked to partake in an Oral History project for the Idaho State Historical Society. A few years ago, the Idaho History Museum developed a temporary exhibit about the Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, or Freemasons, and their history in Idaho. I had been a recently initiated Mason, and was requested to be interviewed in order to get a young person’s perspective of Masonic membership. The process was a series of planned, as well as improvised questions which ended up feeling more like an inquisitive conversation than anything else. After my interview was completed, I was given a CD containing the recording of the interview, as well as the transcript that Ellen had typed; both of which were now to become a permanent part of the Archives of the Idaho State Archives.

Oral History is one of the oldest forms of storytelling, education, and preservation of the past. This field is unique in that it has developed and progressed alongside technological advances. From wax cylinders to tape recorders, the voices of the past have all been recorded so that future generations can not only hear history, but also in the voices that lived it. Digital technologies promise a strong future in the field, once the original cost hurdles are passed. Like any new, developing technology, original equipment cost can certainly overwhelm any state budget (especially in a economic downturn), however, the technology’s longevity and quality cannot be matched by any predecessor and will eventually be a necessity in the field.

As a former professional Historian, I can immediately recognize why Ellen pursued Oral History as a career path.No matter what aspect of history someone works in, their job boils down to storytelling. It’s Ellen’s job to compile the stories, and preserve them so that future generations can hear them.

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