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Students help preserve region’s historical memories

By : Melissa Yang

Physical reminders of the Tri-Cities role as the birthplace for innovative technology and industry such as the IBM complex in Endicott, which is now owned by Endicott Interconnect Technologies, can be found throughout the community.
Students from Binghamton University are helping to breathe new life into the history of the Southern Tier by recording the memories of people who helped shape the region into a cradle for innovative technology.

Susan Sherwood, director of the Center of Technology and Innovation, Inc., first came up with the idea for the five-year oral history project to record and preserve memories of area residents, but it took the efforts of Binghamton University faculty and students to get the project started. Graduate and undergraduate students from Binghamton University — under the supervision of Melvyn Dubofsky, Bartle distinguished professor of history, and Thomas Wilson, professor of anthropology — have so far conducted interviews with 40 residents who worked for IBM, the Endicott Johnson Corp. and General Aniline and Film (GAF).

Yielding information about the impact of innovation and technology on working life, the interviews have detailed a rich portrait of the Southern Tier’s history through first-hand accounts from the people who actually lived it. The project offers insight into how people in the community understood their work and career experiences, Dubofsky said.

“It personalizes history by focusing on every-day experiences and the memories and stories of the individuals interviewed,” he said. “Its value lies not in specific facts or uncovering the “real past” but in providing a sense of what people in the past considered important in their lives and work, and thus a sense of too-often neglected aspects of the past as revealed in personal memories.”

The Digital Archive of Southern Tier Technology, created with financial support from the Ross University Community Project Fund, makes these oral histories accessible through the Broome and Tioga counties historical societies and the University Libraries’ Special Collections. Still in its initial stages, the goal of the project is to conduct 2,000 interviews by 2006 and 5,000 interviews by 2012.

The project provided Wilson and Dubofsky with the opportunity to teach their students how to conduct oral history interviews so that the interviewees feel comfortable telling what are often personal stories from their past. It also gave the students a chance to work as a team with people from diverse backgrounds in terms of age, academic experience and culture, enhancing their educational experience.

Wanting to do something that serves the community and the people of the Southern Tier as well, Wilson said this project provided the perfect opportunity.

Each student had his or her own reasons for participating, but the underlying core of the project is to uncover historical details that may be lost with the passage of time.

“These people are directly related to the economic and socio-cultural development of this area — the fact that Greater Binghamton and the Triple Cities have a rich labor, corporate and technological history, which was integral to innovation on a national and even global scale, was intriguing to me,” said William Pavlovich, one of three anthropology graduate students working on the project.

However, for students like Laura Edmunds, an intern at the Center for Technology and Innovation, Inc. and a senior majoring in English, it goes beyond that.

“I am fascinated by stories, especially first-hand experience stories,” she said. This project has given her a unique perspective on exploring the boundaries of her major. In terms of the local community, she feels it can help revitalize the area.

“If the community can recognize itself as an integral part in the technological and industrial growth of the nation, it can begin to capitalize on its own history to draw new business and industry to the area,” she said.

For Pavlovich and Blige Firat, a graduate student in the Anthropology Department, this project not only provides an invaluable scholarly experience, but a chance to learn about the human experience first hand.

“I hope that the information that we gathered from the project and the histories we recorded will be a valuable resource for them and for generations to come,” Pavlovich said. “It would be a shame for their experiences, stories, accounts, insights and descriptions to be forgotten and go unrecorded.”

The project also lets students give back to the local community by building a working, historical “memory” of the Triple Cities.

“We are hoping to generate further interest, both from the community of students and from the community of the Triple Cities, in the project,” Firat said.

One of the most memorable and rewarding experiences for the students may be the opportunity to talk with area senior citizens. By simply listening, the students have been enriched by stories ranging from career achievements to family hardships and tragedies. For many of those interviewed, who often said “Oh, I have nothing interesting to say,” the project provides a sense of acknowledgement by the community.

“It is a good feeling to be acknowledged, and I think that acknowledgement is one of the goals of this project,” Edmunds said.
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Last Updated: 10/14/08