Ryan Taylor Oral history program comes to an end
Oral history


About Ryan Taylor

Dave Obee's
tribute to Ryan

Ryan's Columns

Ryan's Books

Devonians in

Back to

By Ryan Taylor

An era in the oral history program at the Kitchener Public Library is coming to an end.

Frances Hoffman of West Montrose, who has conducted the oral history interviews for the library since 1987, is retiring at the end of the year. During the past sixteen years, she has done about 250 interviews with a wide variety of Waterloo Region citizens, including employees of Kaufman Rubber and officials of KW Oktoberfest.

The oral history program began in 1981 and for the first several years the principal interviewer was Joanne Venton. Her vivacity and beautiful voice left a void when she died in 1987. Then Hoffman's name came forward.

The library had hit the jackpot. KPL local history librarian Susan Hoffman says, "Everyone who was interviewed had such a positive experience. The Oktoberfest people said it was far less intimidating than expected."

Hoffman's warmth and ease make relaxation a natural part of the interviews. People enjoy talking about themselves, and her natural human interest opens the floodgates.

"It was a great privilege to be part of the oral history program," she says, "Because I believe it's an important means of enhancing our understanding of local history. People don't write things down and the information slips through the cracks."

In the past, history told the stories of 'exceptional' people, while 'ordinary' people were uninteresting. "It doesn't take long to see that there are no ordinary people," Hoffman observes, "Everyone's activities fit into the larger picture, whether they're a broom-maker or a veterinarian. We want all the tales."

The result is a portrait of the whole community, including the mayor but also including the midwife and the butcher. Women's history, previously neglected, very much comes to the fore in these interviews.

Speaking of the things which matter most often brings an emotional charge to the proceedings. "When men talk about their mothers," says Hoffman, "They would often have tears in their eyes, speaking of their hard lives, how much they had to work and what they had to do without. It got so I could almost expect it."

Asked to name a high point of her career, Hoffman finds it impossible to pick one. She names Ken and Lillian Croal describing their parting when he left for the war, Selina Horst's moving description of sitting with the dying, Louida Weber telling how her mother bought coats at the Salvation Army and made them over for her children.

Many of the stories are funny, also. "People have no idea how entertaining the tapes are," Hoffman laughs, "You can sit for hours, drawn into the private worlds of this or that person. It's like looking into someone's diary."

These moments, assembled over years, become a mosaic of the way life was lived in Waterloo Region in the past century.

The oral history interviews, currently numbering about 650, can be borrowed on tape at KPL, and are available to distant locations on interlibrary loan. If you don't have a cassette player at home, arrangements can be made to hear them at the library.

After leaving the library, Hoffman will not be sitting around drinking tea and listening to Russell Watson sing, however. She is active with Waterloo Region branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society and is a food historian whose current project is a study of 19th century cooking in Canada. A fine cook, she experiments with old recipes, matching them with modern equipment and ingredients.

Back at the library, her retirement will make one other difference to Susan Hoffman. "We're always being mistaken for one another," she says, noting they are both Hoffmans, but unrelated. Perhaps one qualification for the new interviewer will be to have a different last name.

Posted December 1, 2003
Column copyright © 2003 Ryan Taylor

Sponsored by Interlink Bookshop and Genealogical Services and hosted by Islandnet.com