The following is a Q & A with one of our long-term researchers, Jeannette Estruth.
KS: Hi Jeannette! Tell us a little about your background and why you came to the Library of Congress and the American Folklife Center.
JE: Hi Kate, thanks so much for inviting me to take part in the American Folklife Center blog. I am a doctoral candidate in the History Department at New York University, and I study American History. I came to the Library of Congress and the AFC to do original research for my doctoral dissertation, tentatively entitled “A Political History of the Silicon Valley: Structural Change, Urban Transformation, and Local Social Movements, 1945-1984.”
KS: What are the specific questions you’re trying to answer in your research?
JE: My dissertation is a study of the economic shifts that created California’s Silicon Valley in the post-World War II period, and of local political responses to those changes. I am particularly interested in grassroots social movements, immigration, urban infrastructure, high technology and information technology, and the natural environment.
Parts of my dissertation pose questions of how the intergenerational nature of activism lends continuity to experience and tactics. When you hear people tell their life stories from beginning to end, you get a sense not only of what they learned from their parents and passed on to their children, but also what motivated their politics from their own childhood experiences and their personal histories. It also becomes easier to track how people are pulled from one type of involvement into other strains of activism over time, and how and why their politics did or did not change over time.
The project also asks questions about how people’s personal experience of place–for example their migration, education, culture, mental geographies, and so on–formed the politics that they eventually espoused and fought for.
KS: What collections are you using at the American Folklife Center? Have you found anything particularly helpful or interesting?
JE: For the most part I am working in the Civil Rights History Project collections, as well as the StoryCorps recordings, which are vast. There have definitely been some marvelous stories that people on the tapes have shared, and one in particular that I’ve included at the end of this interview. Overall, though, I think the most meaningful experience with the oral history tapes has been that, taken together, the listener gets a real sense of the incredible diversity of experience of the last two generations of Northern Californians, but also a really strong collective sense of their responsibility, outrage, optimism, and high expectations for the future.
For me, the auditory experience of working with oral history sources refreshes my commitment to my subjects each time I listen. There is something very human about working with people’s voices, hearing their passions, their dreams–realized and denied–and their vulnerabilities. When a historian hears a very old person clearing their throat, or pausing in a moment of forgetfulness, or laughing at something they had not thought about in years, it reminds the historian that there is a certain poignant individuality to each storyteller, and it demands in a way that you do your best by them. People are very moving in their complexity, and hearing their voices is a constant reminder to respect that.
KS: What collections or items are you using from the other reading rooms?
JE: The Library of Congress is very rich, so I am using several collections from other rooms during my months in Washington. From the Periodicals room, I have spent a lot of time in the Underground Newspapers Collection and the Chicano Newspapers Collection. I am also looking into the United States Census tracts, the United States Conferences of Mayors collection, Earl Warren’s papers, and a great number of write-ups from the Technical Reports Repository.
Across the street, I have also made use of the extensive resources at the Department of Labor Library. The Labor Library is also a wonderful archive in which to work, with deep collections from several unions in the Bay Area and around the world, and really accessible and knowledgeable librarians.
KS: What advice would you give for researchers who are planning on coming to the Library of Congress or the American Folklife Center specifically?
JE: Because the collections at the AFC are so rich, I would advise researchers to do a lot of the legwork about which collections they would like to explore before arriving to the archives. There are a great number of spreadsheets and guides from which you can choose particular interviews and order them by call number; all these guides can be accessed by emailing someone at the AFC before you come. This way, researchers can really hit the ground running as soon as they get to Washington.
Moreover, I would encourage researchers who study the twentieth century in particular to be very discerning in the selections they make about which files to listen to. Listening to and transcribing files takes an incredible amount of time, and I have spent a lot of it listening to hours of tape in hopes of finding something buried in the interview. The oral history guides are your friends, and you should put your trust in the guides and be pretty ruthless about which files to tackle and which to return to for future studies.
KS: What’s your favorite memory of your time at the Library of Congress?
JE: Everyone at the AFC has been so generous with their time and expertise, and working with the staff has been one of the great pleasures of my time here. I have also shared my favorite oral history clip, below, about a young high school student in Oakland. Thanks for all the great questions!
KS: Here’s John Stewart interviewed by Debra Krol in Oakland, California, on September 6, 2004, for the Voices of Civil Rights Project: