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Preserving everyday stories of everyday folk

Beth Bruder (seated), with Swen Shannon and Hyacinthe Eykelhof, at left, and Jo Shannon and Ralph de Jonge, at right.

By Sharon Harrison
“Everyone has a story to tell, not everyone is going to like their story, but everyone has a story,” says Hyacinthe Eykelhof, a volunteer with the Brighton Digital Archives.

Documenting oral histories digitally, and why it is important to do so, was the focus of a presentation by members of the Brighton Digital Archives (BDA) Saturday.

Dedicated to the identification, collection, digitization and presentation of Brighton’s history and heritage, the small volunteer group explained the process, and described the various steps involved.

“We have some people who say, ‘oh nobody wants to hear my story, it’s not very interesting’, but then we get them talking and it’s really interesting,” explains Eykelhof. “We had one guy and he had a PhD in agriculture. He started the round hay bales, he started the no-till farming; that was really important and an important contribution to our community.”

“We’ve had some people just from their age, we have a few that are 100 years old or very close, and they’ve seen the community through a lot of generations and that’s very interesting and we find that very exciting.”

Hosted by the Wellington branch of Price Edward County Public Library, Saturday’s free event was open to all, as BDA volunteers set up their camera and recording equipment and demonstrated how the process is achieved. The PEC Archives is planning a series of days where people make an appointment to “share their story” and will use tips and tricks from BDA presentation.

Volunteer and chair Beth Bruder explained how the volunteer-run BDA, which was established in 2015, preserves photographs and documents digitally and makes them available to history buffs everywhere through various social media outlets.

Two of BDAs founding members, Catherine Stutt and Ralph de Jonge, were present for the event, along with Eykelhof and Jo Shannon, plus professional photographer and videographer (and lead drone pilot) Swen Shannon, but there are also other volunteers who were not present who help make everything work as well as it does.

They have seven volunteers now, from four in the beginning, (de Jonge and Stutt as the original founders), and they’ve brought in extra people as they needed them, or as they showed an interest.

“We are relatively picky about who joins us because it is very labour intensive, it is not just an advisory committee, it is very much a working group,” said Stutt.

She notes that many of the group put in 20 or 30 hours a week, “We love it, we work well together and we have a common respect for the people’s stories we tell”.

They also have subject matter exerts, including someone who advises us on archival standards, someone who advises us on Indigenous matters, and someone who advises on heritage property.

“Hyacinthe and Jo are the heart of the ‘Brighton I Remember’ series, in addition to being incredibly digitally-oriented, and they are also fiercely protective of the stories that are shared with them,” she said.

Eykelhof and Shannon are the pre-production part of the team where they explained the first thing they do is select participants for the program.

They never cold-call anybody. Most of the participants who want to share their stories are referred by friends, by word-of-mouth or come through BDA members, but also via community events, or the library, for example.

If they think someone might be a good candidate for the program, they talk to them to get a sense of what kind of stories they have, and how interested they are, and if they have photographs and materials that could be incorporated into the video.

“Then I set up an interview, and we will just have a conversation around the kitchen table and just get them talking and ask them questions,” explains Shannon. “They would say something and more questions come out and they will go this route, then that route, and then by the end of that, I put together a little script.”

The script is then fine-tuned where they may talk to the person again to go over the details, so nothing is missed, or the person may have further questions.

Shannon says they always try to do it in chronological order so that it makes sense when once the video is complete.

“That’s to make sure everything is organized before we actually make a date to show up with all the equipment and do the shoot.”

Interviews can take place in a living or recreation room in someone’s house, or on the front porch or even in a barn – wherever the person is most comfortable.

Shannon also says they try not to do the same thing over and over again.

“We try to evolve and change things around, and we also added a drone so we can use drone footage for the video as well, it just makes it a little more interesting and fun to watch.”

For anybody working to capture stories at home, she also reminds to never forget to include humour.

“These people have some funny stories and they are hilarious, even though it happened 60 years ago, it’s still fun and we always try to bring stuff like that into the realm of how we do things.”

Eykelhof recalled the story of an older women with a part-time job in a canning factory. She told how they earned money by how much they canned, and she also spoke to work at grocery stores.

“She said in those days you brought your list to the counter and the person behind the counter would go and get the sugar, and go back and get the flour, and then go back and get whatever else she wanted, and they would pack it up and then they would take it home. It was a little social gathering, everyone would hang out there waiting to get their groceries.”

Shannon recalls another story of a lady who was in high school in the 1930s and how when she completed a math problem on the board incorrectly, the teacher said to the girl, ‘Well miss, you are pretty, but not smart’.

“I just was flabbergasted that anybody would just say that to a student, but you would never get away with that today. That’s unfortunately the way it was back then and I thought it very sad,” said Shannon.

Eykelhof adds the group tries to make sure the person they are talking to is comfortable with them, and the material they are talking about. Not everyone they interview works out, and sometimes people change their mind.

“You don’t want to talk about anything they are not 100 per cent comfortable with or use any photos they are not 100 per cent comfortable with,” said Eykelhof.

For the BDA, the topic being shared must also be relevant to its mandate of sharing local history and historical stories. She said they have had people come forward who are more interested in their holidays and travelling than they were about the town of Brighton, which doesn’t fit with what they are looking for.

It also helps if BDA volunteers are interested in what the people have to say.

She says that talking to the older people, she find the war years fascinating as so many Brighton residents were in the first and second world wars.

“Just to hear how it was here when that was happening is just absolutely fascinating and we need to keep those stories fresh so somebody will learn from them. I think that is a really important part of remembering Brighton.”

At the end of every video, they have a disclaimer that says, “this is how they remember it, this is their history.”

Eykelhof shares the story of one woman who was a school teacher, but as a student, she worked in the canning factories during the Depression.

“What we never realized was because it was the Depression, some members of the Group of Seven were so desperate for money that they developed the canning labels for the canned product from the County here,” said Eykelhof, “and a lot of people don’t know that because it wasn’t signed work and it wasn’t known that they did this.”

Bruder explains the BDA was originally a committee of Brighton council, but this year the reporting structure will change as it becomes part of the Brighton Public Library, something Bruder says they are looking forward to.

At the Wellington library visit, they spoke of the collection of videos produced, including the oral history of our community and local events ‘Brighton I Remember’ series.

Bruder talks about how the BDA created its own unique style of recording stories of seniors in the community that document what the community was like years ago, highlighting changes and memories of life in Brighton.

“This recent history is recorded so they can communicate their stories of their era, something we are on the verge of losing as these seniors pass on.”

The oldest participant in the ‘Brighton I Remember’ series is now 100, soon to be 101, and grew-up and lived in Brighton, and has a deep history in the community and is a good resource for lots of questions, according to Bruder.

“Recording these interviews allows us to ask questions and capture the nuances of everyday life a hundred years ago, or 50 years ago, and feelings that cannot be captured in a more formal way,” she explains. “It also captures the enthusiasm of our whole community, people now approach us and say, ‘you should interview this person, they did this’, and so our library of Brighton ‘I Remember’ interviews continues to grow.”

Bruder said Shannon and Eykelhof have perfected an interview technique and process that makes the subjects’ comfortable and ready to tell their stories,

de Jonge provided a demonstration of the process and all that’s involved.

“Jo and Hyacinthe come to shoot knowing exactly what the people are going to say,“ explains de Jonge. “It’s basically a list of all the scenes we are going to shoot and Jo sits behind the camera and will prompt them and remind them, and get all of the information out of them they have gleaned in the interview process.”

He said the video shoot is the quickest part of the entire process, and he described what was happening as it happened, such as the equipment used and its positioning, as well as who is positioned where, and why.

“You’d be surprised how important audio is to a video, and the way we record audio is through those two microphones, it sounds very crisp and clean and intimate,” said de Jonge.

He said they are recording sound in three different places. Each camera has its own sound plus the master sound, and its part of what is used to synchronize all the clips together.

“Catherine wears headphones as all she’s looking for is the quality of the sound and the sound that might be out there, like a train passing or an airplane flying overhead, or someone mowing the lawn,” he explains. “If it’s a problem, she’ll know it’s a problem, she will tell us to stop and we’ll wait ‘til the noise goes away and we’ll start again.”

de Jonge says it takes an hour to set up, it takes an hour to shoot, and it takes a half hour to strike and go home.

The third stage of the process is post production where all is transferred from the camera and recording gear to the computer.

Following several sessions to finish an edit, they take it back to the subject for approval.

“We will look for any errors that we’ve made or anything that we have missed, and then once we have their approval, we post on YouTube with links in Facebook and our feeder website – and once it’s all published, we watch the numbers click.”

He says people are often surprised how happy they are with the product because they came into it nervously.

“Once people started to see what it is we had done, they became very comfortable with it accepting that we were going to do something good for them.”

To date, the BDA has completed more than 69 videos and have recorded more than 8,000 volunteer hours since mid-2015, and they have many projects ahead of them that will occupy their time for years to come.

“We have probably 20,000 images outstanding to scan and digitize, post, apply data to, and put on our website,” said Stutt.

She speaks to the effort of the crew in the room, but also the Brighton members’ effort where she says there are lots of moving parts behind the scenes as well, but adds they couldn’t do their work without the support of an engaged community.

“We are thankful for them and they are very quick to share the stories and the materials, and as the years go on, we will be able to publish that and share it with the world,” she said. “We are proud of Brighton’s history and the ability to share it.”

“It’s captured peoples imagination and interest because we have all heard stories from the seniors in Brighton, and so it gives us a chance to capture as many stories as we can.“

“It is important for us to share this history and our expertise to maximize the opportunity to ensure this history is not lost,” said Bruder. “Oral histories are very important and are available to all of us, if we take the time to record them.”

But it is the trust that Stutt speaks to as being a meaningful part of their work.

“The people who trust us with the stories and their materials – we will have people who give us boxes images, maps, family histories, and that’s the only copy out there – and they trust us. That to all of us, the trust of their stories is what we really cherish.”

Above, one of the many “Brighton I Remember” videos with Brighton’s Dan Thompson, a fourth generation Brightonian and third generation lawyer. In a three part series, he weaves a fascinating journey through his family’s history in law, politics, canning, and of course, music as a member of Bentwood Rocker. The group’s first public performance was at the Regent Theatre, in Picton. He also reveals what he believes is the enduring charm of Brighton.

Click here to see more “Brighton I Remember” videos

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