Oral History, Data, and Communities

Oral histories and everyday experiences don’t often come to mind when we think of data. Data usually refers to the quantitative scientific measurements that point towards an objective truth. By contrast, human experiences are often seen as subjective, misleading, and an unreliable source of information when making decisions. In discussions around science and health, these distinctions are often heightened as people try to separate technical problems from social issues. While working with the Science History Institute on the REACH Ambler project I was able to see not only that technical problems expressed through data have deeply social consequences, but that oral history can be an important part of imagining solutions.

Ambler, a suburb of Philadelphia, was once known as the asbestos capitol of the world. A factory on the south side of town once produced asbestos containing building materials that were integral to mid twentieth century construction. Now, this post-industrial landscape is an EPA Superfund site with an uncertain future. Community members and EPA staff often hold public meetings to discuss the remediation process and the possibility of redevelopment. Instead of acting as a venue for airing out community concerns, these meetings became highly politicized spaces where only conversations based on the scientific data were considered relevant.

In this environment, oral histories were conducted with residents to understand many of their concerns that weren’t able to be voiced in public settings. We learned from the oral histories that residents near the Superfund site have concerns about public infrastructure, gentrification, and social and environment justice. It became apparent that any future use of the Superfund site that didn’t address these issues had the potential to have profoundly negative effects on the community. The oral histories helped reinforce the connection between scientific problems and the real world social impact they have in communities.

The oral histories also became the source material for a series of short plays written about the history of asbestos in Ambler. These plays explored the social issues voiced by residents in the oral histories and their connection to asbestos remediation. The plays helped provide a supplemental space where people could learn about the perspectives and concerns of other residence while stepping out of the political atmosphere of public meetings.

Our definitions of data often exclude the kind of evidence we find in oral history but Ambler is an example of how oral history and scientific data can complement each other as communities work towards environmental solutions.

Zack Biro is a public historian at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia and the OHMAR Communications Director.

Find out more about the REACH Ambler project here.