Pennsylvania Bidwell High Rise:
Oral Histories

Background -- Why & How

Manchester Electronic Branch Library & Beyond.
The present oral history project at Pennsylvania Bidwell High Rise sprang from an attempt to create an "electronic branch library" for and in the Pittsburgh community of Manchester. Oral histories had been an intended component of the electronic library from its very beginning. But, the oral histories became in themselves a demonstration illustrating and exploring 1. the power of the Web; 2. the usefulness of the Web; and, 3. the measure of the Web in community building.

Beginning in 1994, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh became involved with "Common Knowledge: Pittsburgh" an NSF-funded project to put Pittsburgh's neighborhoods online, using the resources of the Library's Pennsylvania Department. That project, "Bridging the Urban Landscape," was enormously successful and remains ongoing. Several of the players originally involved in "Common Knowledge: Pittsburgh" went on to create Information Renaissance and it was Information Renaissance that, in 1998, approached Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh on this "electronic library" collaboration. The effort to create a Manchester Electronic Branch Library was a natural outgrowth of the original "Bridging," but represented a deepening of that project and an attempt at more, actual community involvement.

Though the Internet--specifically the World Wide Web--is enjoying great popularity at present, it still needs to prove itself to many segments of the population. Many people, of course, do not enjoy any access to the Information Superhighway. Many organizations, strapped for funds, have greater priorities than making digital versions of their brochures accessible online. Yet, they do not perceive that this technology can have an internal as well as an external impact by involving their memberships in new and creative ways, by providing their members and members of the community with new skills, and by providing new opportunities for outreach.

Several years ago a prominent community organization suffered a fire which obliterated many of its historic documents. While digitization is admittedly not a preservation medium--technology is changing too too quickly--it does represent one safeguard against the loss of a community's memory--and provides extraordinary access to materials at the same time.

It is in all these senses and more that these oral histories are a demonstration project.

Pennsylvania Bidwell High Rise.
Bidwell is a perfect place to do oral history. As Shakespeare observed, everyone has a history. Everyone has a story to tell.

I was graciously granted access to Pennsylvania Bidwell by its Tenant Council and by Ms. Fannie Goodman who was President of the Tenant Council at the time. I did a presentation before the residents about computers and about oral history and asked for volunteers. Some ten individuals signed up--more, unfortunately, than the six represented at present on the website. If only there were "world enough and time," but alas, putting the world online will have to wait for someone else....

In any case, the process was very straitforward:

* a tape-recorded interview
of between one hour and two hours duration;
* transcription of the interview,
which often took several days;
* review of the interview with the interviewee
to correct errors of fact and words or phrases misheard due to the quality of the recording.
(It was important that the interview be the way the participant wanted it: this was, after all, the presentation of themselves world-wide);
* the creation of links,
based on the interviews, and culled, for the most part, from the resources of the Pennsylvania Department;
* creation of chronologies and indexes;
* the digitization of audio clips.

In my interviews I had no "agenda" other than a desire for interesting anecdotes about Pittsburgh and about the lives of the interviewees. I was not disappointed. There are both white and African-American residents at Bidwell. As it turned out, my volunteers were African-American.

With just this small group of individuals, interesting patterns and connections begin to emerge. One resident had worked in Federal Enamel in McKees Rocks. Another resident's mother had once worked there. Several individuals had worked in the health professions. Church and music were real and enriching elements common to these lives. Travel--a love of travel--was also something that many of these individuals shared.

Readers may be disappointed that I did not pursue certain tacks or that I was not more vigorous in soliciting "political" or charged responses to my questions. However, my intention was simply for the residents to talk about themselves, about Pittsburgh and about living at Bidwell. I was certainly not out to badger but only gently to coax. I am deeply appreciative of the trust implicit in being welcomed into these folks' homes and in their graciously allowing me to pry into their lives as much as I did.

Organizing Information.
There is no "right" way to organize information.
Search Engines (and, as they get better at it, even more so) are able to scour those resources that librarians (or information brokers) take the time to digitize. But what for the seemingly desperate search for information? Knowledge for what?

It is my conviction that online resources should entertain and inform.
These six oral histories are meant to do exactly that. They are meant to be read through and visited. The links, as adequately as was possible given constraints of time and resources, are meant to annotate and amplify the recounted reminiscences of the speakers. At the same time, they are coherent and organized visions of Pittsburgh and the world--albeit organized by the associative thoughts of unique sensibilities.
Officially I was allotted two days a week to work on this project. A really rich oral history for any of these six individuals would require a month of Sundays just to track down and put online, in depth, the references called forth from the past.
Mr. James "Bill" Lee alone could call forth a vivid and vital time on the Lower Hill when there "was no Civic Arena there" and music and entertainment and stores flourished.

The links that have been constructed and the links that have been made to other sites are intended to enrich each oral history. Many oral histories online are "flat" in that they are text only and neglect to make use of hypertext links to amplify and vivify their stories. The strengths of this website are in its compelling stories and in its links, as time-consuming as those links were to research and to construct.

So, in a sense, here is a tour of Pittsburgh and America organized by the principle of particular lives, lived day-to-day, year-by-year. Part of the website's value is that connections are perceived or discovered as one traverses the landscape of these lives. A picture emerges. Consider: if all the residents of Bidwell were recorded in similar fashion, think of the organism that the technology might foster--how the real world would mirror itself in the virtual world and if that virtual world were revealed to the residents, how it might create new links and new relations for the better within the real world in turn....

"Why, I never knew that you worked at such-and-such!"
"Why, when did you live on whatnot Street?"
"I can't believe that you actually know so-and-so!"
The Web in its potential, revelatory, true connecting role.

Blessed then be the ties that bind.

Barry Chad,
Updated: 22 May 2003.

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