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Sawyer Free Library, Gloucester, Mass.

Mrs. Hannigan (right) runs a boarding house for girls working in war plants. Mrs. Hannigan (right) runs a boarding house for girls working in war plants.


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Oral history traditions

Throughout human history there has been a tradition of passing on historical and cultural heritage through storytelling. This informal communication has only recently been valued enough to have a more formal process of gathering recollections and documenting them. One of the earliest occurrences was shortly after Abraham Lincoln’s death in 1865. His secretary, John G. Nicolay, and law partner, William Herndon, gathered recollections of the sixteenth president, including some from interviews, from people who had known and worked with him. In the 1930s and early 1940s, the Federal Writers Project collected thousands of life histories in transcript form. These included slave narratives elicited from elderly former slaves living in the South. Using recording devices to document interviews began with the work of Allan Nevins at Columbia University in the 1940s. Nevins was the first to initiate a systematic and disciplined effort to record on tape, preserve, and make available for future research recollections deemed of historical significance. Other historians have expanded the concept to include not only persons of significance, but ordinary people – family members, co-workers, and other members of the community. These interviews are used to preserve the experiences of everyday life.


From the slide presentation, "Cape Ann unfolding", by Linda Brayton, 1978. From the slide presentation, "Cape Ann unfolding", by Linda Brayton, 1978.

Gloucester oral history collection

“Toward an oral history of Cape Ann” was an oral history project which interviewed prominent and ordinary Cape Ann citizens between 1978 and 1989. Principal oral historians Linda Brayton and David Masters recorded 100 oral histories reflecting the cultural and economic past and present of Cape Ann. In 2003, most the original sound cassettes were converted to compact discs by the Sawyer Free Library. These recordings were converted to .mp3 files in 2009.
The histories cover a range of topics --- the fishing industry, the artist community, ethnic traditions, business life, even the geology of Cape Ann. Here are some audio clips to give a small sample of the breath of experiences documented in the histories.


Listen to sample clips from the collection:

  • Harry Eustis : Fisherman in the 1920s OH19CD33
  • Leena Wayrynen : Coming to America OH38CD59
  • William Mitchell : Remembrances of changes over the years OH44CD66
  • Oscar and Greta Johnson : Swedish community on Cape Ann OH46CD69
  • Winthrop "Bunt" Davis : Being a fisherman OH47CD70
  • Marshall Swan : Geology of Cape Ann OH49CD73
  • Margaret Norton :Virginia Demetrios and Folly Cove Designers OH74CD104
  • Lena Novello : Family history of Gloucester fishing life OH77CD110
  • Betty Lou Schlemm : Heritage of the art community OH91CD131

From the slide presentation, &quot;Cape Ann unfolding&quot;, by Linda Brayton, 1978.<br /><br />
<br /><br />
From the slide presentation, "Cape Ann unfolding", by Linda Brayton, 1978.

Access to the oral histories


The oral histories are available on CD to be checked out at the library. In addition, the oral histories have been transformed into .mp3 files that can be access via this site.


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Additional information about oral histories

For more information about oral history traditions, and to hear other collections of oral histories, please visit these web sites:

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