The personal stories in Michael Frisch’s book Portraits of Steel may have been told by steelworkers in New York, but they could have easily been told by workers here in the Lehigh Valley. In two lectures sponsored by the South Side Initiative, Frisch, a professor of history and American studies at the University of Buffalo, explained how the oral histories he collected for his book help connect us to our industrial history.
For the book, Frisch conducted extensive life history interviews with the subjects of photographs taken by Milton Rogovin—images of steel workers at work and at home. The stories and the photos combine to tell a powerful story of the workers whose lives followed the rise and fall of America’s steel mills. Each of the subjects featured in the book worked for a steel plant that ultimately shut its doors, just as Bethlehem Steel closed here in Bethlehem.
“We have many connections to our industrial history and a similar fate in many regards,” Frisch told an audience of Lehigh faculty and students and members of the local community. “For this project, we began with the photos and then moved to a larger story and broader discussion of their understanding of the transition that they, the steel industry and the nation were going through.”
Frisch, who completed the book in 1993, is working on a new project that explores digital software approaches for indexing and annotating audio and video documentation, such as the audio he captured during his steelworker interviews. He hopes to better understand how people can explore, access, and utilize the information in these media and what that means for academic and public historical discourse.
Frisch’s ideas were welcomed both by local historians and steelworkers in Bethlehem.
“Michael Frisch's visit comes at a perfect time: when Lehigh people in Library and Technology Services and in History, along with a number of groups outside of the university, are trying to coordinate their efforts in making Bethlehem's rich history accessible and interactive,” said John Pettegrew, associate professor of history and co-director of the South Side Initiative.
“His talk on Friday was well attended by former steelworkers who have over one hundred interviews on tape in need of digitizing and integrating with other historical material. They were fascinated by Mike's ideas. What I like most about his project is that it takes digital technology and presents ways to have people go deeper into historical content, rather than skimming over its surface as the Internet seems to encourage.”
Kim Carrell-Smith, professor of practice in history and a public historian who attended the lectures, agreed. “Michael Frisch offered us an incredible window into ways that oral history may become more publicly accessible and user-friendly for both scholars and community members through the use of new digital media,” Carrell-Smith said.
“The idea that anyone will be able interact with oral history recordings provides a remarkable opportunity for the general public and for historians. Instead of placing those interviews in an archive for some imagined future researcher, or only seeing portions someone else selects for an exhibit or documentary film, we can all access the material and actually use it—in a variety of ways.”