On the record: Preservation Society launches San Marco Oral History Project

When San Marco resident and oral historian Chris Tasker approached the San Marco Preservation Society (SMPS), Robin Robinson said the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

“…The historical society was talking about taking oral histories for the bicentennial,” Robinson, SMPS chairman for historic resources said, “and we’ve got our centennial in three years in 2025 and I thought, ‘Well, it’s the perfect time to gather our oral histories.’”

Tasker had approached different local preservation and historical societies with the idea of collecting oral histories. He and Robinson first met in March of this year. Since launching the San Marco Oral History Project, they’ve collected approximately 14 interviews, each roughly 45 minutes long, with individuals relaying memories and stories of the San Marco community and, in particular, their relationship with SMPS.

“The point of doing the oral histories was, of course, to give people in the future the chance to see what we had to say about today but I wanted to document the many projects and activities the San Marco Preservation Society does,” Robinson said. “So in a way I’ve kind of tried to build a little history of the San Marco Preservation Society in accordance with talking about San Marco itself. It’s kind of two-pronged: San Marco in general and San Marco Preservation Society.”

Tasker said oral history will allow historians of the future an “unfiltered,” direct connection with people today and provides a closer look at what everyday life is like for people rather than the big picture created by traditional historical records. It’s the “tidbits,” he said, that could provide the contexts and details that future historians need to “translate [the past] to something you and I can identify with now and understand what their problems were like.”

The creation of modern oral history, as we know it, and its archiving is credited to Allan Nevins, a journalist and historian, at Columbia University. In 1948, he founded the Columbia Center for Oral History. Today, Columbia University’s Oral History Archives is considered “one of the largest oral history collections in the United States.” The Oral History Association was launched in 1966 and has since become “the principal membership organization for people committed to the value of oral history.” The OHA “…encourages standards of excellence in the collection, preservation, dissemination and uses of oral testimony.”

In an e-mail statement, Jacksonville Historical Society CEO Dr. Alan Bliss expanded on the importance of oral history:

“At one time, all human history was shared through the oral tradition, but the practice languished for centuries until the 1960s, when inexpensive portable cassette tape recorders became widely available,” he wrote. “Since then, oral history archives have expanded nationwide. Oral history interviews are a rich resource for understanding the past, not always with factual precision but in revealing our individual and collective memories…”

Entering the next phase of the project will involve editing and transcribing the interviews and Tasker said the edited and unedited interviews will be given to both the Jacksonville Historical Society to be added to their own oral histories archives and the SMPS, with talks of uploading the interviews to the SMPS website for people to access directly.

“I would say one of the things I’ve learned the most is certainly we are a community that’s had a big privilege,” Tasker said. “We’re very privileged to have this [preservation] society. It’s a reflection of the fact that a lot of people here have the capacity in the first place to spend this extra time, extra money, extra effort in their days to improve the community and I think that it’s something the neighborhood could easily take for granted. I think it’s such an important thing that people recognize we are lucky enough to have here in San Marco.”

Tasker will be leaving the project in the fall, however both he and Robinson hope it will continue beyond his departure, with Tasker adding he’d like to see the project expand beyond the preservation society to include the community as a whole.

“I think there’s a lot of value in capturing a broad picture of the community even beyond the picture of the community created by the preservation society because we’re not just talking about the preservation society, we’re talking about the community overall,” he said. “And I also think a diversity of our voices more would be very valuable.”

“I think some people might say, ‘I’d love to give an oral history,’ so we’ll do that,” Robinson added. “But I’ve got to find somebody like Chris. We will do more oral histories as time goes on but right now we need to stop, take what we have and process it.”

By Michele Leivas
Resident Community News

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