Today’s post comes from Jill Legault, information specialist for Quetico Provincial Park.
Quetico’s oral histories have been locked away on archival cassettes at the John B. Ridley Research Library, until now.
Courtesy of history enthusiasts at the University of Wisconsin Whitewater, they’ve come out of the vault and into our ears.
By digitizing our interviews, we hoped to preserve and share the stories of Quetico to build connections with the people who travel here.
Additionally, magnetic cassettes have a limited lifespan. As many of the interviews were conducted in the late 1970s and early 1980s, digitization became a priority for the archive.
My master’s thesis was an oral history project based in Quetico Provincial Park, but I had no experience digitizing cassettes or improving audio quality.
Elizabeth (Liz) Liska, under the direction of Dr. Anthony Gulig, traveled to the North Shore to lend me her time, equipment and expertise in converting cassette tapes to .mp3 files.
Dr. Anthony Gulig of the University of Wisconsin Whitewater led the project. This summer he traveled to French Lake to check on the progress, carve some oars and paddle back to Minnesota via Prairie Portage.
Liz spent three weeks in French Lake, deep in the back of the John B. Ridley Research Library, digitizing over 400 (yes, 400!) interviews in real time. The audio quality had definitely improved over the years, as the park invested in better recording technology. However, the poorer quality recordings didn’t faze Liz, who cleaned up some of the older, tinny vocals and repaired cassettes.
Liz and Jill digitizing at full speed. We found a tape at Anishinaabemowin!
Who was interviewed?
Most of the interviews were conducted by Shirley Peruniak, who was the Quetico Park Interpreter from 1975 to 1994. She decided to learn about Quetico’s past by talking to the people directly involved.
Shirley interviews archaeologist David Arthurs, 1987
He had the insight to interview some of Quetico’s early rangers, loggers, trappers and indigenous elders just before many of them passed away in the late 1970s.
Suddenly, the strong northern accents of Benny Ambrose or Billy Magie appear, as they infuse their stories with elements of history and humor.
And there is the cadence of the Powell family on the east side of the park and the poetic language of the writer Sigurd Olson.
The voices of Root Beer Lady Dorothy Molter, naturalist Shan Walshe, and Quetico’s First Ranger Bob Readman come to life.
Where moments before they were indecipherable, voices from Quetico’s past emerge.
There are the voices of less famous and not-so-famous people, reminding us that everyone’s story matters. This is re-teaching me the value of listening to and celebrating the unique subtleties and distinctive character this place brings.
Having easier access to this valuable piece of Quetico’s archive will surely benefit future generations.
Now the fun work begins!
This fall, Liz will supervise students as they listen to, catalog, and code recordings.
Liz and I have been working with park staff to create a comprehensive list of identifiers to analyze the tapes. Once indexing is complete, researchers will be able to quickly identify passages or items of interest and see the relationships between them.
Laugh while you go digital: there are great stories to hear
The brilliant thing about coding from audio recordings, rather than transcripts, is that you can immediately tell when something is important to the interviewee. When someone gets emotional, you can hear it in their voice. Their pace often quickens and they become very specific about an experience. On the contrary, it is easier to tell when someone is being vague and impersonal.
The goal is to have them codified by next summer.
Words to reflect on
I leave you with one of my favorite “Shirley” quotes:
“The canoeist does not travel through a roadless desert. The canoeist travels through the past. His canoe travels the same route that other canoes have traveled before. You see the same islands that others have seen. You pass by the same coast that others passed by. You travel the same journeys that others have traveled. The cycle of your journey is the cycle of other journeys.”