On Tuesday, the day after Yom Kippur, area Jews sat in the University Club in Oakland, eating raspberry sorbet and watching Ed Galloway resurrect old neighbors from the dead.
With his actions projected on a screen to his left, Galloway, who heads the Archives Service Center at the University of Pittsburgh, navigated to the home page of “Pittsburgh and Beyond: The Experience of the Jewish Community,” the new Web version of the oral history archives compiled by the National Council of Jewish Women Pittsburgh Section.
Galloway’s cursor clicked on the name “William Langer,” and a woman’s voice came over the loudspeaker. “I would like you to tell me something about your life in Europe,” the woman said. The voice belonged to Jennie Strauchler, who interviewed Langer in 1969, the second year of the NCJW Oral History Project that is now 41 years old.
“My name is William Langer, and I’m born in 1888,” a male voice replied in a Ukrainian accent so thick it turned his name into “Villiam.”
Over the course of a three-hour interview, the leather merchant from Kiev describes Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, tells of saving his son from a pogrom and details synagogue life in early 20th century Pittsburgh.
Just a year ago, some curious soul hoping to hear this recording had to do it in person, driving to the Hillman Library to pop an audiocassette into a tape player. Now, anyone with Internet access can listen to Langer and hundreds of other local Jewish voices.
Experienced travelers know that tour guides only show one side of a city — the landmarks and monuments. To find the hidden gems, you need to explore on your own.
Since launching the Oral History Project in 1968, NCJW-Pittsburgh has been the premier tour guide of this ever-expanding city populated by 516 Jewish Pittsburghers who agreed over the years to be interviewed by some 70 NCJW volunteers, like Marcia Frumerman and Gene Dickman, who were instrumental in founding and continuing the project.
What began as a way to preserve the stories of immigrants moving into Riverview Towers in the late 1960s has since assumed numerous “forms and permutations,” as NCJW-Pittsburgh President Susan Nitzberg phrased it: two books and two documentary films, a slide show on the interviewing process, course curriculums and study guides, searchable databases and, of course, the 1,187 audio cassettes that make up the archive.
Those formats, though, all required NCJW to cull information, grabbing pieces from various interviews to craft a cohesive narrative. Now, the roughly 1,200 interview hours in the archive are available at the click of a mouse at digital.library.pitt.edu/n/ncjw.
“Since NCJW has always, from its founding in 1893, been about innovation and access and enhancing the lives of men, women and especially children, we feel that this is the best thing that could happen to this treasure trove of information,” Frumerman said.
She sees the online archive as an attempt to honor the old truism about history: that it helps the present generation learn from the past. The interviews give a personal take on world history; the necessity of labor laws hits home when discussed by a woman forced to hide in a barrel — and forgotten — as a child to sidestep authorities.
The NCJW Oral History Project expands the notion of what an archive can be, according to Alexander Orbach, director of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh.
For years, archives only collected the papers of important people, Orbach said, which meant they excluded the experiences of regular people who didn’t keep diaries, write letters or save memos, but still had a personal history to share.
“And so the whole field of social history has been transformed by what this project really entails,” Orbach said.
The University of Pittsburgh and NCJW-Pittsburgh have been partnering for decades. The university began housing the entire NCJW archives, which date back to the 1890s, in the early 1960s.
The university began digitizing the archives last year, part of the broader mission of the Archives of Industrial Society, which documents Pittsburgh’s evolution from a pre-industrial to a post-industrial society, and aims to increase public access to historical information about the region through projects like the Historic Pittsburgh online archive.
Galloway said getting the Oral History Project online meant jumping two hurdles: turning fragile audiocassettes into digital files, which the university contracted with a Philadelphia firm to do; and making the archive searchable by name and topic. For that, the university converted a 331-page indexed guide to the interviews into a dynamic online database.
When technicians at the Archives Service Center began digitizing the archive, they noticed a pattern in this index — a consistent order to the information — and were able to write a computer program that automatically harnessed the guide for the Web.
These details amaze professional archivists like Galloway, because the Oral History Project is the work of volunteers. As such, communities around the world have contacted NCJW for advice.
The local archive is believed to be in a class of its own: the largest collection of recordings tracking one community across the 20th century.
“Now, your project is worldwide,” Nitzberg said.
That accessibility has already yielded dividends. In the few months the archive has been online, the university has heard from people around the world, including a soldier in Afghanistan, who found the voices of old relatives through web searches.
At its core, though, the project is a community endeavor. Tuesday’s ceremony included many people who have been interviewed over the years for the archive, and the University gave each of them a silver box containing a recording of their interview.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)