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Paynesville Press - Jan. 29, 2003

Volunteers transcribing oral history for museum

By Jennifer E. Johnson

During the early 1990s, the Paynesville Area Historical Society began a project to preserve the oral history of the Paynesville area as remembered by local community members. The goal was to document the stories and events - that might otherwise have been lost - as an oral history library for future generations.

Dick Realdsen - photo by Jennifer E. Johnson Over the course of a few summers in the early 1990s, interns Jared Morris and Diane McLaughlin interviews nearly 100 local residents and compiled a collection of video and audio tapes. "These tapes are the history of this area," said Bertha Zniewski, curator of the Paynesville Area History Museum.

Volunteering for the Paynesville Area History Museum's oral history project, Dick Realdsen listen intently as he transcribes an interview.

"We had so much fun doing them," she said, "we just got carried away."

The history museum had always wanted to do something with the tapes, she continued, but they never seemed to find the time.

Last summer Michael Jacobson, editor of the Press, approached Zniewski with the idea of recording oral history from the Paynesville area. Their first task turned out to be transcribing the video and audio tapes that the museum already had.

Though the existing tapes were a valuable resource, they weren't being utilized because there was no record of the contents. "History works on documents. While we still hope eventually to do more interviews," said Jacobson, "first we need to find out what's on those tapes."

Currently the focus of the project is to recruit volunteers to screen the tapes and summarize the facts and anecdotes. These summaries, which should be more user-friendly, will be put into the museum's files for researchers, including museum staff. They also plan to create a reference system for the tapes similar to a library card catalog.

Zniewski is excited at the prospect of finally being able to use the tapes in the museum. "Genealogy is such a hot thing now," she said. "People interested in their family history, or the history of the town could come into the museum and learn more."

Commenting on the influx of people moving to Paynesville and commuting to St. Cloud or Willmar for work, she also said the tapes might be a good way for people who haven't grown up in the area to understand more about their community.

Dick Realdsen, one of the first volunteers for the project, said he had some time this winter and thought listening to some of the tapes would be an interesting way to learn more about the background of Paynesville. So far he's finished two of the three audio tapes on loan from the museum. "I learned about how the mail used to be delivered by sled and by horses and how the post office used to be on main street," said Realdsen. "It's fun to learn the history, especially about your own area, and to see how things have changed."

Still in need of volunteers, the project can use all the help they can get, said Jacobson. No previous writing experience is needed, just an interest in history and the ability to write detailed notes while listening or viewing a the tape. Anyone interested in volunteering can contact Jacobson at the Press.

Realdsen observed that screening the tapes is a process. "You're always kind of deciding what's important and what's not," he said. "It's also a little more fun when you know the people you're listening to."

Jacobson cautions that the project may not be for everyone. The sound is sometimes poor and can be a challenge to understand.

The museum is rich with historical artifacts thanks to the generosity of residents, said Jacobson. "Our goal in this project is preserving the oral history for future generations as well," he added.

For an example of the oral history project, read an interview with Lloyd Peterson, transcribed by Michael Jacobson.

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