Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Vocal Records

Photo of the Bitumount oilsands plant, 1936. Bitumount was one of the first commercial oilsands plants.
Oilsands oral history project gets underway with the support of five key players. This article appears in the February issue of Oilsands Review 

By Peter McKenzie-Brown

Four oilsands companies – Syncrude Canada, Imperial Oil, Athabasca Oil Sands and MEG Energy – have become founding sponsors of an oral history project conducted by the Petroleum History Society (PHS). Why?

To appreciate the significance of this development, consider the story of Karl Clark. By far the most influential oilsands researcher, Clark did his important work before anyone now working in the business was born. Yet historians have easy access to useful information about him. That’s mostly because Clark lived during an era of low technology. He wrote letters and diaries and prepared scrapbooks and, with the methodical skills that made him a first-rate scientist, filed them carefully away. Since most of his work was done at the University of Alberta and the provincial government’s Alberta Research Council, his studies became public documents, now accessible through the university’s archives.

The accessibility of this work enabled Clark’s daughter to compile an authoritative and insightful book – Oil Sands Scientist: The Letters of Karl A. Clark, 1920-1949 – with relative ease. Direct, clear and intelligent, his letters contain important technical and chronological information about Clark's work. They also reveal much about his personality and character.

How many letters have you written recently? Probably very few. Because it’s faster and more secure we’re far more likely to send e-mail or use the phone than write memos and letters. In some ways technological advances are making it harder – not easier – to follow the impact of influential people. The profusion of information about us obscures areas of our intellectual and personal footprints. For those of us who believe an understanding of industrial development is possible, and necessary, this is a big loss. What's the best way to proceed?

The answer is oral history. To create balanced pictures of the growth of big industrial sectors, historians need personal recollections. The memories of those involved breathe life into the dry corporate and government documents that provide so much of the raw material of history. In this case, those being interviewed were mostly engaged with the oilsands for long periods. Their understanding of the sector has more depth than versions provided in the popular press.

The Horse’s Mouth
Oral history is a discipline that has developed over the last 60 years in lock-step with the spread of technology. As the personal and business letters that once formed core material for historians disappeared, technologies like cassette decks and video recorders proliferated and plummeted in price. This has enabled many historians to move beyond documentary research – instead, preparing contemporary history by simply asking people to tell their stories.

According to the Glenbow’s library and archives director Doug Cass, “to anyone researching and writing about history in the 20th and 21st centuries, any oral history that can be found is very important to our understanding of the past. Memory is, of course, very complex and fallible, but it just seems so obvious to use someone who was involved in an event to provide first-hand knowledge.

“Oral history is a source like any other, and the information provided needs to be cross-referenced with other materials,” he says. However, “the rich data about feelings and relationships is compelling and valuable.”

Clint Tippett – president of the Calgary-based Petroleum History Society – concurs. “If we want to understand history, there’s no better way than from the horse’s mouth. Every aspect of history is complicated – causes, effects, decision-making and repercussions. So there is no replacement for getting the true goods from a person who was actually involved.”

Mixed metaphors notwithstanding, Tippett’s comments celebrate initial funding for an ambitious oilsands history project. When Syncrude, Esso, Athabasca Oil Sands and MEG Energy agreed to fund the first phase of this oilsands oral history, they were continuing an industry tradition that began 35 years ago. PHS intends to conduct and record extensive interviews with 100 of the sector’s pioneers, then transcribe that material. The organization will donate this valuable source material to the petroleum collections of Calgary’s Glenbow Archive (part of the Glenbow Museum), which will make them accessible to media, the public and historians.

Two key supporters of this project, Eric Newell (formerly chair of Syncrude) and Bob Taylor (formerly Alberta’s assistant deputy minister for oil) described the project as providing “historians, researchers and educators with a repository of primary information from knowledgeable sources…(it) is part of a 30-year oral history effort by the Petroleum History Society (which has) already collected and archived more than 300 interviews with key figures in the evolution of the Canadian oil and gas industry” – pioneers like Jack Gallagher and Carl Nickle. Taylor said in an interview that “this effort will create a wealth of material that should be part of the industry’s educational efforts.”

According to the Glenbow’s Doug Cass, “the oral history recordings produced by the society’s previous petroleum industry oral history efforts are among the most used collections in our archives.” Especially since so many of these interviewees have passed away, these files are an irreplaceable part of the Glenbow’s extensive petroleum industry collection. “With the loss of these individuals, we lose important voices that can help historians recount the story of how this industry was created.”

A Textbook on Steam Technology

The history society’s Tippett is a strong believer in the efficacy of these personal statements. “We may think that we understand what happened in the past and why,” he says, “but we work with incomplete information and through the filters of our own experience. We may not see the bigger picture or context within which events unfolded. Records are commonly incomplete and small but critical aspects, in particular with regards to people, often fall between the cracks” when a historian is trying to re-create a piece of the past.

“Indeed,” says Tippett “seeing the powerful role that people play and the degree to which they are driven by their personalities, values and aspirations” makes those personal perspectives a critical part of understanding how events occurred. “The way people interacted with the technology of the day and how they innovated also becomes more tangible when it is heard from an actual participant. I’d much rather listen to a train engineer describe how he handled a steam engine than read a textbook on steam technology.”

The formal PHS proposal describes the project as “a core educational project for the oilsands industry. It will honour those who helped create and shape the industry. By uncovering stories of challenge and innovation, it will contribute to a deeper understanding of how the industry developed and how it functions. It will serve as an important resource for historians, researchers and educators.”

Tippett adds that “the opportunity to contribute to oral history can often be seen as recognition of an individual’s accomplishments. Unfortunately,” he says, “the other major place where a person’s life is spelt out is in an obituary – and by then one isn’t in a position to either appreciate or correct it!”

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