“Shirley Knutson and Rural Ministry Initiative: An Oral History Project” by Carly Bagley

Article about Shirley Knutson as a missionary in Thompson, North Dakota. Arrow points to where she is standing
in the circle.

This project seeks to examine oral history methods through a series of interviews with Shirley Knutson. In particular, the primary focus of this project is to explore and understand ethical questions and effective principles regarding oral history methodology. In these interviews, Shirley talks about her life and her intentions for Rural Ministry Initiative, a residency for seminarians in rural Graettinger, Iowa. She describes her experiences in rural communities as a child, student, teacher, wife, and mother and the journey that led her to convert her farm site into a home for pastoral interns. These interviews have been transcribed, annotated, and archived at the Norwegian-American Historical Association. This project also explores intersecting historical topics like domesticity, religion, and family relations from the perspective of a woman living in the Midwest United States during the mid-to late-20th century.

Carly had shown an interest in exploring themes about ethical family history practices, intergenerational trauma, and resilience within families and worked to contextualize Shirley and her life to better understand her family dynamics and history. To do this, she researched her family tree using primary source documents from Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org. As a best practice, it is important for public historians to do additional research and incorporate primary sources into their work. Vital and census records corroborated Shirley’s life account and will assist future historians who will study her life. This process of researching, interviewing, archiving, and transcribing took 18 months to complete.

After preliminary research, Carly conducted the first few interviews via Zoom, an online video
web conferencing tool. After a few interviews, the Knutson family expressed a desire to meet her in person at the family farm in Iowa. This allowed Carly to have more time blocked out to interview Shirley, interview others and have a better understanding of the environment of her story. In total, Carly collected approximately 10 hours of audio from this trip. It was helpful to have this time blocked out to interview Shirley and others, as she was able to acquire the bulk of information from this trip alone. Because the initial intentions with this project were to create a podcast, Carly kept recorded observational audio field notes and sound bytes of the environment and was able to collect photographs and videos to document the different places she visited during this project.

The Norwegian-American Historical Association (NAHA) at St. Olaf’s College was interested in Shirley’s collection and began corresponding with its archivist, Kristina Warner. She was enthusiastic about the donation, especially because she was interested in expanding their oral histories collection. She was also able to meet the specific needs for preserving this collection. Those accommodations included restricting the interviews from public use for a customizable number of years and requiring researchers to contact the Knutson family before being able to access the interviews.

The transition from a podcast project to an archive collection required flexibility and careful planning. Although Shirley’s story is not public yet, adjusting project plans met her and her family’s needs. This type of accountability to the Knutsons was a priority. This capstone project can be a helpful model for historians to understand the particular ethical questions that surface when conducting an oral history project. The transcriptions, interview audio, atmospheric sounds, photos, and videos from this collection could be part of an exhibit or podcast exploring themes of domesticity, religion, and rural life for women. Organizing these materials for an archive creates these possibilities and ensures that Shirley’s story will be told to a wider audience.

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