In our new series, OHMA student Kate Brenner talks to program alumni about how oral history training prepared them for their next step. In this post, Ellen Brooks tells us about her position as Oral Historian at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison. Stay tuned for the next post in the series!
A native of Chicagoland, Ellen Brooks attended Fordham University (B.A. History, B.A. Communications) and Columbia University (M.A. Oral History) and held several public history-related internships before making her way to Madison, where she serves as the Oral Historian for the Wisconsin Veterans Museum.
What brought you to OHMA?
When I began researching graduate programs I was looking in the Public History and Folklore fields and I sort of stumbled upon oral history. I read and researched and it quickly became clear to me that oral history was a powerful combination of many of the things I was passionate about; namely, storytelling, democratizing history and thinking creatively about how we teach and share the past. Having survived New York during my undergrad years, I decided that Columbia and the OHMA program was a perfect fit for my next academic adventure.
Tell us about your job.
I am currently the Oral Historian at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum (WVM) in Madison. My job is divided into two major components.
Firstly, I manage the Wisconsin Veterans Museum Oral History Program, which entails actively gathering oral histories from veterans across the state. We interview veterans from every era and conflict and every branch of service. The interviews focus primarily on military service, but we try to paint a picture of who the veteran is as a person and include their perspective on what it has meant to serve. Interviews are done by me or by volunteer interviewers that have been trained by me or past WVM staff.
Secondly, on the archival side, I oversee the preservation and maintenance of the oral history collection. When I came on board the interviews in the collection numbered 1,885. Today we are quickly approaching 2,000 interviews. It is my job to determine how best to store, preserve and arrange the interviews and to think about ways to make the collection accessible.
How did OHMA prepare you for your new position?
OHMA gave me the foundation I needed to take on the job at WVM. Before OHMA I only had a peripheral understanding of oral history. Through readings, discussions and fieldwork experiences I quickly became deeply immersed in the field. After a year I emerged an oral history professional. I have done a lot of learning on the job, but OHMA gave me the confidence to pursue oral history as a career.
What was the most valuable thing you learned?
I learned a lot during my OHMA experience, but I don’t think any one thing I learned was more valuable than the community I became a part of during my time in the program. My cohort and the OHMA alumni I have met have become a vital resource. I thoroughly enjoyed exchanging ideas with my fellow students and today I still rely on them for personal and professional support.
Anything you would want to tell students studying oral history/hoping to use oral history in their work?
One of the best pieces of advice I can think to offer to students studying or working with oral history is to always keep in mind what drew you to oral history in the first place. It is easy to get bogged down in methodology or get overwhelmed by technology – we have all been there. But at the end of the day there is a reason you chose to work in this fascinating, and occasionally frustrating, field. For me, like I expect for most people, it is because I love to listen. When I remember that and try to do it as well as I know how, my job becomes much less of a chore and more of a privilege.