New Canaan Library starts oral history project
NEW CANAAN — Before Natalie Spruck’s internship at the New Canaan Library, she didn’t think much about what went on behind the bookshelves. Little did the 17-year-old know her library internship was about to help her become part of New Canaan history.
The library’s executive director, Lisa Oldham, and Christle Chumney, adult services manager, had a special project in mind for this year’s interns. The three women, along with David Strupp, another intern, teamed up to create an oral history of New Canaan. The project detailed the changes in town over the years through podcasts that feature interviews with prominent members of the community.
The idea came to Oldham several years back in an effort to start creating locally-based content at the library.
“One of our roles is to not only collect information and make it accessible, but also be the place where local content is created and stored,” Oldham said. “We thought, ‘How could we start to be the locus for creation of local content that is different, stuff that is the real color and flavor of the community?’ And so, oral histories seemed like a very logical way.”
The library applied to the Community Foundation, which funded the equipment used for the project. New Canaan High School provided the manpower as part of a program where graduating seniors have the opportunity to complete an internship during the last month of school.
When Chumney and Oldham met the interns assigned to them, they knew Spruck and Strupp would be perfect for the project.
“When we met with them on the first day, it was clear to Christle and I that these two students were going to be the right students for this role,” Oldham said. “They developed a rapport with us in one minute, so we felt confident then turning them loose on the community.”
To get the project off the ground, Spruck and Strupp first had to learn how to use audio equipment and conduct interviews. Then they, along with the women at the library, made a list of interview subjects. The students ended up offering valuable insight into who could tell the history of New Canaan.
“When we first started the project, we wanted to feature local flavor—people who have been here, have a history in the town, could capture how the town had changed and offer a really unique perspective,” Chumney said. “When Natalie and David came on, we were going through the list and they said, ‘Oh, you know, the (high school) coaches would be interesting to interview.’ That was one of the first ones they did and I listened to it and thought, ‘Oh, that’s such a good idea.’ It was a really different perspective on how the school system changed and that was a really interesting perspective that we would’ve missed.”
Spruck and Strupp also interviewed Patricia Brooks, a former restaurant critic for the New York Times, and Rob Mallozzi, New Canaan’s first selectman. The two students struck a balance; both would research subjects, come up with questions and do the interview. They had similar questions for each person, but tweaked them based on the subject’s background. Then Strupp would edit the podcasts, while Spruck worked on marketing.
Spruck said that although she had no journalism experience, it was never a struggle to get interesting interviews.
“There were times when coming up with the questions may have been a little bit more difficult based on wording, but thinking of questions based on the research aspect wasn’t difficult,” she said. “You’re interviewing people who have a lot to say. We went into the interviews expecting them to take a half hour, but some took an hour. Everyone had their own story and everyone had meat to their story, so there was never any issue pulling information out of someone or feeling like the interview went horribly. There was always something there and they were all so interesting.”
The final result was nine interviews, all available on the library’s website. The subjects talk about everything from why they moved to New Canaan to how they’ve seen it change in their particular field.
The project doesn’t end there. Spruck is still working on more interviews and the library is hoping other New Canaan residents will do the same. The interns developed a protocol, so others can rent out the audio equipment and create their own addition to New Canaan’s oral history.
As for the interns, their own futures involve leaving New Canaan behind. Strupp is currently preparing to play lacrosse at Harvard, where he’ll study business. Spruck is working at the library for the summer but will soon head off to Texas Christian University to study psychology and help manage the football team. She said the internship made her realize that she might want to study public relations as well.
Just as the internship affected the students, they’ve also left a mark on the town by helping get this project off the ground.
“The goal with this is that we have the gear, so we can train others to use it,” Oldham said. “What we’d love is for this to grow in an organic, but community-generated way. I would love for people to look at this, hear this, and say ‘My neighbor down the street is so interesting. I’d love to interview my neighbor and have that go onto the library’s oral history site.’ I’d love to see it grow that way. I’d like to see a Girl Scout troop decide that they want to do a community project and come and learn how to use our equipment and go out and interview their grandmothers or their aunties. I’d like it to grow and be our own little New Canaan version of StoryCorps.”