Q&A with Rauner digital collections and oral history archivist Caitlin Birch

by Berit Svenson | 5/2/18 1:50am

Since her arrival in June 2014, Caitlin Birch has become an integral part of the Rauner Special Collections Library. In addition to her role as head of the Oral History Program, Birch is the College’s first digital archivist, enabling researchers to access computer-generated materials in the modern age. She also collaborates with students, faculty and staff to cultivate a deeper understandings of historical events. Through this work, Birch provides students with an opportunity to engage in hands-on learning.

What brought you to Dartmouth?

CB: The job brought me to Dartmouth. I went to graduate school at Simmons College for two different degrees: a master’s of science in library science with a focus on archives management and then a master’s of arts in history. After I got out of graduate school, I worked for the TV show “Frontline” for a little while, which was a lot of fun. I learned a lot, but I was looking for a position in an academic setting where I could work with students and do a little bit more on the teaching and learning side of archives.

What is your role at Rauner Library?

CB: I have a split role. I’m head of the Oral History Program, which means that I am responsible for any oral history projects that Rauner undertakes. I also make the interviews available for research once they are done. Just like everything else at Rauner, interviews are open for use by students, faculty, staff and members of the public who are interested in it. I’m also the College’s first digital archivist. We have old letters, diaries and records of the College dating all the way back to its founding. Because of the way that we, as humans, have changed our relationship with documentation, we now do most things on computers, though. Instead of writing letters to each other, we write e-mails; instead of keeping diaries, we might keep blogs. College records are increasingly being generated on computers instead of in paper format. If it was created on a computer and has some kind of historic value, I take it in and try and make it usable and accessible for research.

What got you interested in oral history?

CB: I got my undergraduate degree in English literature and journalism. I worked in journalism after college for a couple of years before I went back to graduate school. So I already had a commitment to storytelling and an interest in what we can learn from individuals’ experiences of larger events in time. When I did my master’s work in history, I became really interested in how I could connect my background in journalism to the more scholarly work of a historian. It was natural for me to jump to the oral history side of things. Oral history and journalism are not the same thing, but they draw on some of the same skills and ways of looking at the world. I’m constantly learning more about oral history and drawing more comparisons between it and journalism.

What inspired you to lead Dartmouth’s oral history program?

CB: Our oral history program used to be run by a series of oral historians who did the interviewing themselves, and they were fantastic at doing their work and produced a lot of great content. When I arrived, though, we shifted to a new model where students would do the interviewing. Instead of conducting interviews, I’m doing a lot more teaching and training with students so that they can learn to do interviews and become involved in the process. I think that this model is an exciting one because it gives students an opportunity to engage in hands-on experiential learning. The ability to partner with students in this way has been meaningful for me and is what keeps me excited about my work.

What has surprised you about your work?

CB: I’m constantly surprised by how much we don’t know. It wasn’t really until I went to graduate school that I got a chance to do archival research and gain an understanding of how history is made — it really is individuals going into archives, poring over documents, figuring out how they connect and building a narrative from there. When working in oral history, we may think that we know what the Vietnam War meant in this country, but when you start talking to individual people about their experiences — like we do with the Dartmouth Vietnam Project — it really adds all of these layers and ways of looking at the conflict that you might not have encountered before. An upcoming project called “Speak Out” will focus on LGBTQIA+ history at the College. A lot of that history is not well-documented in the archives because there just aren’t written records from the perspectives of people who identified with that community. Oral history is a priceless opportunity to understand things that we don’t yet understand and complicate what we think we do understand.

What have you learned from your work in the Oral History Program?

CB: I’ve learned a lot about the Vietnam War that I didn’t know, and similarly, I’m learning all kinds of things about the LGBTQIA+ community that I didn’t know. I’m also gaining insight about Dartmouth as an institution and where it’s headed in the future. I think that these kinds of collaborations with students, faculty and staff — where you’re really working as partners in some sort of research endeavor — is what oral history really is at the end of the day. That’s really exciting, and I’ve learned a lot about where those opportunities are. I hope that the College continues to support that kind of work.

What are some challenges that you have encountered with your work here?

CB: Sustaining longer-term projects is sometimes challenging because it can be difficult to locate the resources needed to continue the work. Sometimes, these projects grow and benefit from having more staff working on them, and sometimes they need an infusion of funding. Finding those kinds of resources can be tough at an institution like Dartmouth because there’s so much cool work going on, and so many people need resources. The College has to think carefully about where it allocates them.

What is your favorite aspect of working at Dartmouth?

CB: Working at a place like Dartmouth — if you were the kind of person who loved school, learning and reading, which I was — is an opportunity to continue to do more of that. I love being surrounded by teaching and learning. I love the fact that no day looks the same as the day that became before it. I get to keep doing new things and keep learning new things.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.