Listening In(ternship): Working on the Rakow Library Oral History Collection

This post comes from Georgia Westbrook, the Oral History Intern at the Rakow Research Library.

This past winter, I spent three weeks working on the oral history collection at the Rakow Research Library. Listening to interviews with former Corning Glass Works employees, I learned more than I expected to about Pyrex, which my mother has in our kitchen, and Steuben Glass, which my grandparents have in their home. Though these brands are familiar to me, I knew little about the fascinating science and history behind them.

An oral history is a conversation with someone about their experiences and knowledge, recorded to preserve and document his or her unique story. At the Rakow Research Library, the oral histories include video and audio recordings from artists, scientists, designers, men and women who worked at The Corning Museum of Glass, and many others. Oral histories are more than just interviews; they are directed by the subjects (known as narrators), who are encouraged to tell their stories from their unique perspectives. My job is to index these recordings, which means I listen to the recordings and note the different topics covered and when each topic begins. This becomes a “table of contents” for the interview, so people can easily find what they are looking for.

Oral histories are full of quirky stories that would rarely make their ways into other historical records. One of the oral histories in the Rakow Library collection is a 2014 recording with Al Donnelly, a former supervisor of consumer information for the Consumer Products Division at Corning Incorporated. He recounts a time when researchers at the company purchased female goats to study the use of enzymes with glass. One male goat was accidentally included in the shipment and Donnelly ended up bringing the young goat home for his daughter.

Listen to Donnelly’s full oral history, CMGL 140418.

The stories are also often inspiring. In an oral history from 2010, glassblower Manny Quinnones describes his first introduction to the craft. On a fieldtrip in the seventh grade, he visited Vitrix Hot Glass Studio in Corning, NY. He was drawn to the beauty of the gaffers creating holiday ornaments, and when they asked if the students had any questions, he raised his hand and asked how he could work there – to the amusement of his classmates. Quinnones traces his journey from asking that question as a cheeky middle schooler to being hired as a glassblower at the studio years later.

Manny Quinnones oral history, CMGL 116827.

These two clips are just a small slice of the collection, but when the recordings are taken together, they begin to fill in the rich and relevant story of the glass industry in Corning and beyond.

Learn more about the Rakow Research Library’s oral history collection and how to collect your own oral histories.

The Rakow Research Library is open to the public 9 am to 5 pm every day. We encourage everyone to explore our collections in person or online. If you have questions or need help with your research, please use our Ask a Glass Question service.

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