This project public history project in the Adirondack Mountains found a new way to engage with its community
- The Keene Valley Library created a public history narrative project that involves the locals not merely as parts of an audience, but as a community of storytellers.
- The archive of autobiographical stories in audio and photographs has become the talk of the town. It changed the way students learn about local history, and fostered a sense of community.
- The software and toolkit they used are readily available for all organizations.
Engagement has become synonymous with social media metrics. But those numbers are merely proxies for what organizations like public libraries, museums, historical societies, and issue-oriented organizations want: to foster a sense of community, of shared identity. That's just what the Keene Valley Library has accomplished with Adirondack Community, a multi-year public history project that collects and organizes 3- to 5-minute audio stories and related photographs from local community members, all posted online on a dedicated website.
It does so through our online platform, which allows organizations to collect, curate, and disseminate stories in audio easily. With our tools, Adirondack Community became a growing story project of more than 265 stories from local Town of Keene residents on topics such as disasters residents have experienced, people and daily life, outdoor activities, work, and play.
In a town of about 1,100 people, more than seven times that number of users have clicked on the website to listen to the stories. The project’s podcasts have been played more than 2,700 times. But more importantly, Jery Huntley and Karen Glass, creators of the project, have seen the project become the talk of the town. Locals tell them they often discuss the stories at the dinner table or comment on each other's submissions when they meet at the grocery store or post office. This community project sparks interest and interactions.
Jery Huntley likes to recall the testimony of a resident who found solace in Adirondack Community during challenging times, "On cold winter evenings in our harsh Adirondack climate, I often felt sad, so I would listen to the Adirondack Community stories and hear about the people of this community helping each other through multiple disasters and challenges. The stories warmed my heart and helped me get through two COVID winters."
At Memria we have written about the importance of public history initiatives. Adirondack Community is an example of a successful one because it contributes to the community on several levels:
First, the archive preserves essential stories from all generations. Among the stories, accessible by anyone with an internet connection, are the voices of people between the ages of 14 and 98. The breadth of topics, backgrounds, and points of view is a rich resource about the past and present of the Town of Keene.
On a second level, these stories foster a sense of awe and pride. Through Adirondack Community, Keene residents can hear how its members participated in world events like the Olympics and the Second World War; how the community has come together in the face of formidable challenges like Hurricane Irene; and the city's changes around pressing issues like racial justice. “I love seeing my neighbors in a new light," says Katherine Brown, director of Keene's Little Peaks preschool program. It gives me a clearer sense of how special this place is."
Finally, the online story project has become an integral part of the curriculum. Students from elementary school through college visit Adirondack Community to learn about the town’s history. If Keene Central School students want to learn about World War II, they can listen to the story of community member Army Private First Class Charles W. Smith, who fought against the Germans in Italy. Textbooks have the dates and facts, but the Adirondack Community story project has the personal story of a local who fought in actual battles. The students themselves record their stories to learn how to tell important stories from their lives engagingly.
With Adirondack Community as a model, Jery Huntley created OurStoryBridge [www.ourstorybridge.org], a toolkit for like-minded organizations to create similar projects. The website offers detailed guidelines on planning, budgeting, recruiting storytellers, collecting, procuring, and disseminating stories, communications approaches, marketing, and public relations. Organizations are already implementing their own projects in places like Igiugig, Alaska, and North Hero, Vermont. With Memria’s tools, OurStoryBridge’s toolkit, and the commitment of a civic institution, any town in the United States can create its own public history project to engage with its community.
Jery Huntley, MLS and Janelle A. Schwartz, Ph.D. (2022) OurStoryBridge: Engaging Folklore in the Digital Age. Voices, The Journal of New York Folklore
Louis N. Bickford, Ph.D. Why do Public History? Memria.org. https://www.memria.org/public-history-guide