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65th IFLA Council and General


Bangkok, Thailand, August 20 - August 28, 1999

The Cayman Islands Memory Bank: collecting and preserving oral history in small island societies

Heather R. McLaughlin
Memory Bank Coordinator
Cayman Islands National Archive


What is a Memory Bank? Why have the people of the Cayman Islands invested considerable time and money on one? Why is it part of the National Archive? How do you design and implement an oral history program that seeks to document the social history and traditions of a group of scattered islands? Particularly where recent development has brought rapid and dramatic changes, prompting one of our informants to say "Only three things in Cayman haven't changed: the sun, moon and stars. Everything else has changed"? And once having gathered it, how do you ensure that the information is preserved and readily accessible to the public? These are some of the questions that this paper attempts to answer. It outlines what we have done and are doing to preserve both the voices of "the unknown majority of the people" as Paul Thompson calls them, as well as that of leaders, officials, etc.


(Please note that transparencies will be shown during the presentation of this paper)

I am honoured to have been invited to speak to you this morning and to have the opportunity to tell you about the Cayman Islands Memory Bank, but before I do, I would like to briefly tell you something of our Islands and their history so that you can understand why the Memory Bank is so important to us.

The Cayman Islands are situated in the Caribbean Sea, some 500 miles south of Miami, Florida and 180 miles northwest of Jamaica. Our nearest neighbor is Cuba to the north. There are three Cayman Islands; Grand Cayman, 22 miles long, is the largest, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman are considerably smaller and lie 82 miles northeast of Grand Cayman. If you are at all familiar with the Caribbean, you will realize that, in terms of nearness to other islands, we are the most isolated of the West Indies islands, and that has been a factor in our history.

When Columbus discovered Cayman in 1503, the islands were uninhabited, and as far as we know, they remained that way until about 1700. Over the next 150 years settlement continued slowly, and by 1802, when the first census was taken, there were 933 residents. Claimed by Britain under the Treaty of Madrid in 1670, the Cayman Islands have remained British; we are a British Overseas Territory.

For the next 250 years or so, life was difficult in Cayman - the rocky soil, lack of natural resources and isolation were factors - and development prior to the 1950s was so slow as to be almost non-existent. Our people had to, of necessity, rely on the sea for food and communication with the rest of the world; consequently shipbuilding and seafaring, or `sailorizing' as the old term is, became very important. They also learned to make good, and often ingenious, use of what little nature provided - coral fans for sieving flour, the rough skin of the oldwife fish for a scrubbing brush, the washwood plant for soap, and various medicinal plants for home remedies for all kinds of ailments. Most ingenious of all was the use of the indigenous silver thatch palm not only for hats, baskets, and to thatch roofs, but to make rope, by hand, that was prized by fishermen in Jamaica and Central America because it did not rot in salt water, and could be traded for sugar, flour, cloth, etc. In this way, the people of the Cayman Islands not only survived, but developed a unique and interesting culture of their own, and life continued, tranquil and largely unchanged until the middle of this century.

Because life was so difficult, in the 19th century Caymanians began to go elsewhere to look for work; to Jamaica, Cuba (especially the Isle of Pines), the Bay Islands of Honduras, Corn Island and Bluefields in Nicaragua, and to the southern port cities in the U.S., but wherever they went, they took their culture with them. Cayman remained home to them, and they sent money and gifts to relatives in Cayman regularly.

Then after WWII, several things happened to bring change to the Cayman Islands, almost overnight, it seemed. Air travel began, in a small way at first, with a seaplane making weekly flights from Tampa, and the first tourists, adventurous types, began arriving. Our men, who had always gone to sea, first to fish for turtles on the cays and reefs far to the south, and then as seamen on various vessels engaged in regional trade, began to find jobs on steamships, particularly oil tankers, in the post-war boom and were able to send much needed cash home. The Islands began to develop, roads were improved, in the mid-sixties electricity and telephones were made available to all, the terrible mosquito problem was brought under control, and the Banking and Trust Law was passed, paving the way for the Islands to become the world-recognized banking center they are today.

From that point on, the Islands' growth and development was extremely rapid, and more and more people from around the world, including Thailand, came to live and work in Cayman. The population has grown from 10,000 in 1970, to 40,000 in 1999, and tourist arrivals are now approximately 1.2 million annually. Caymanians now represent only about 50% of the resident population.

While these changes brought much that was good, including economic prosperity, they also brought problems. One of these was the threat to our culture, as our traditions were swamped in a flood of movies, television, newspapers, etc. from abroad, primarily the U.S., and the influence of so many non-Caymanians, from much older cultures than our own, in the society. Faced with these influences, the old ways began to be forgotten and, indeed, in the minds of some, grew the idea that Cayman did not have a culture of its own, which in turn led to a sort of cultural inferiority complex. In the early 1980's, many Caymanians became very concerned about all of this and work began which eventually resulted in the establishment of the National Cultural Foundation, National Museum, National Trust and National Archive. As part of this initiative, a group of concerned young adults began interviewing older Caymanians on audio tape in order to document the old traditions and way of life. This developed into the Memory Bank, which eventually was recognized by the Government as very important and made part of the National Archive in 1991. All of those earlier tapes are part of the collection.

At first the intention was that all the interviewing, etc. would be done by volunteers, but this did not work for a variety of reasons, and in 1990 the decision was made to hire a full-time coordinator, (which was me), and to make some funds available to pay part-time interviewers. This approach has proven to work for us, and the collection has grown from 67 tapes in 1990 to 988 at the end of 1998, 874 of which have been transcribed.

As the collection has grown, our procedures, forms, documentation strategy, etc. have also grown and developed. Just as the Memory Bank itself grew out of a perceived need in the community, so have many of our procedures and projects been in response to perceived needs. Initially we received a lot of help from Dr. Olive Lewin, the founder of the Jamaica Memory Bank, and by the time I was hired much of the ground work had been laid: consent/release forms and other forms were ready, equipment both for recording and transcribing had been purchased and a handbook for interviewers had been written. As we actually began to interview, some of these had to be modified and refined. We have always taken a very pragmatic approach, and today the procedure is as follows.

Selecting the narrator/documentation strategy:

Who is selected as a narrator (we call interviewees `narrators') is dependent on the purpose of the project; the documentation strategy. One must first decide what information, etc., one wants to preserve and then search out the individuals who can supply it. We have found that good community contacts on all three islands are the key in identifying narrators, and we have been very fortunate in this respect, as from the beginning we have had strong community interest and support, particularly from the National Trust committees in each district. The fact that we are a small society helps of course. We have also learned that, particularly with elderly narrators, it is best if the first contact is made by someone they know and trust.

Our documentation strategy has developed with the project. At first our primary concern was to interview as many elderly people as possible to get a picture of life before development. We began with the voters lists for each district from which we got the names of everyone over 70. Once we had interviews that included a good representation (districts, sex, and economic levels), we took a closer look and tried to identify gaps in our knowledge and then sought out persons with the knowledge to fill those gaps. Narrators themselves are often very helpful in suggesting others, as well as members of the community as mentioned earlier.

We also search the historical records to identify areas where interviews can shed more light on an event/period or where personal perspectives are needed to give another dimension to existing records. As time has gone on we have both widened and sharpened our focus; a project on Caymanian music led to the Archive publishing a book of traditional songs, and we have travelled to some of the other countries where Caymanians have settled - Honduras, Canada, U.S.A., England - to interview Caymanians or people of Caymanian descent, and we interview such people on visits `home' to Cayman. It often happens that something that comes up in an interview leads us to a new topic which we then focus on.

We are interested in getting the personal and social dimensions of the various aspects of both life in the past and of development and our documentation strategy reflects that. We sometimes interview on recent events, such as the Cuban refugee crisis Cayman experienced in 1993-94 as part of a larger project on Cayman-Cuba connections. We continue to endeavour to have representation from every level of society, so for example in dealing with the development of Tourism, cooks, bar-tenders, housekeeping staff, taxi drivers, crafts people, etc. are interviewed as well as owners, managers, Tourism Dept. officials, etc.

Our documentation strategy is regularly reviewed, progress evaluated and new areas identified and added. However, we feel that it is important to remain flexible and open to seizing opportunities as well as following a plan to document all aspects of our society and culture.

Survey/consent/interviewer's forms:

The survey form is meant to give both the interviewer and the project background information on the narrator, both for future reference and to aid in preparing for the interview. It is best if this is done by someone other than the interviewer (explain why) and volunteers or family members can be useful here. The consent form is important from an ethical point of view as well as a legal one. We feel that it is essential that the narrator understand from the beginning what is to be done with the tape/transcript, who will have access to it, etc. Some O.H. programs advocate waiting until after the interview to get the form signed, but we prefer to do it `up front', making it clear that the recording is `for the record'. We believe this is fairer to the narrator and also avoids the dilemma that might arise if the narrator refused to sign after the time (and money) had been spent in doing the interview. It does sometimes happen that during an interview the narrator will say `don't record this' and, of course, we turn the recorder off while that particular anecdote is being related. This can be frustrating to the interviewer as these `off the record' tidbits are often most interesting, but the narrator's wishes must always be respected. With the few narrators who, for various reasons, may not fully understand the purpose of the interview, we like to have a family member explain it to them and be present when the form is signed. This not only ensures that ethical considerations are satisfied; it also guards against future problems.

The Interview:

This of course is the crux of the whole process and preparation is vital. There is much debate on whether to have a detailed list of questions or not. I believe that depends on the sort of information you are attempting to get; if, for example, you want to know how a dance was performed or a particular craft item was made, then a set list of questions can be very useful. Generally, however, we have found that knowing as much as possible about the narrator and the activities he/she engaged in, making him/her feel relaxed, asking open-ended questions, letting him/her talk and asking good follow-up questions produce better interviews - set questions strictly adhered to are very limiting and can cause you to miss some important points. Often the apparent by-ways the narrator goes down in the course of the interview result in significant information. Interviewing is rather like riding a bicycle, you can really only learn to do it through experience. We have found that the key is to establish a non-threatening atmosphere of trust and to demonstrate a genuine interest in what is being shared. Someone has said that interviewing is "the practise of careful listening, not just collecting information". Patience is essential, particularly if the narrator wanders a bit (or a lot) in telling his story; tact is needed to bring him back on course.


The first step in preservation is to make a copy of the tape. We do our interviews on high-bias audio cassettes which become the archive copies. As soon as possible after the interview a copy is made on low-bias tape which becomes the working copy. The archive copy is placed in one of the strongrooms which is kept at a temperature of 55F/14C1 and 50% RH. We have taken advice on preservation, and while digitization has some exciting possibilities, it seems that its long term advantages are still in question. Consequently we have purchased reel-to-reel equipment and will soon start the process of copying the collection to that medium. The reel-to-reel tapes2 will then have to be rewound regularly (every 2-3 years is recommended). In the meantime, the sound quality of the older cassettes - dating back to the early '80s - has not noticeably deteriorated.

The working copies are the ones we use for transcribing and also for the members of the public to listen to. They are kept in the Memory Bank office until the transcribing process is completed, then they too are placed in a temperature and humidity-controlled strongroom.

Transcribing itself is part of our preservation strategy as well as having other uses. The transcripts are printed on acid-free paper; originals are bound by our conservation department and kept in a strongroom except when requested by a Reader. We also place the drafts of each transcript in storage in the Records Center. Access to these preservation means is just one of the advantages of being part of the National Archive.

The transcripts also exist in electronic form on computer - another means of preservation - and back-ups are done daily on diskettes and weekly and monthly on tapes, which are stored in a strongroom.

Narrator Certificate/Summary Sheet:

We believe that it is important to recognize the vital role our narrators play in the preservation of our oral history, and so very soon after the interview a narrator certificate is sent to them.

Once the information has been collected, ways and means have to be found for providing access to it; finding aids. We have worked out a subject authority list/thesaurus (which is regularly updated) of subjects our narrators have discussed. Interviewers listen to the tape and note the subject, using the terms on the list, and counter numbers on the interview summary sheets. This gives us a rough index to the tape's contents and the counter numbers make it easy to find that particular subject on the tape. These summary sheets are later used by the transcriber to create the document summary on the computer, which is searchable, allowing us in a matter of seconds to provide a Reader with a list of the transcripts which have information on the subject he is interested in.

Many oral history projects stop here; with the tape and summary/index. We, however, go farther, and transcribe, both for the preservation reasons mentioned earlier, and because most researchers prefer to read a transcript rather than listen to a tape. Another advantage is when the transcripts are on computer it is much easier to search for particular pieces of information. We consider the tape to be the primary document, however, which is why we carefully preserve the originals, and why we encourage researchers to use both tapes and transcripts.

Transcribing/audit/edit/document summary

Transcribers also sign a release form. (show transparency)

We have worked out a transcribing policy and a set of guidelines for transcribers in order to ensure consistency of punctuation, spelling, treatment of dialect, etc. There are many dilemmas and puzzles in trying to accurately present the spoken word in written form; spelling dialect words which have probably never been written down, indicating pauses of different lengths, interpreting various sounds (ums, ahs, uh-huhs, etc.) and the best attempts fall short. A transcript can be very helpful though, especially if the narrator uses a lot of dialect terms or his accent is difficult for the researcher. This is why we encourage people to use the two together. The transcriber also creates the document summary, using the summary sheets, which have to be edited somewhat as the document summary fields allow a limited number of characters.

We audit each transcript. Someone other than the transcriber, ideally the interviewer - listens to the tape making corrections by hand on the transcript. This is to fill in any words the transcriber could not understand and to correct any mistakes in order to ensure that the transcript is as accurate a representation of what the narrator said as possible. The corrections are then put into the transcript and a second draft printed, the edited version. To us, `editing' simply means putting in corrections, we make no other changes, beyond occasionally adding a footnote. At the same time the document summary is proofread and any corrections made. The edited version is proofread (by someone other than the one who did the editing), those corrections put in - second edit - and final version printed.

Title pages and interview summary (the same wording as the document summary but in a more reader-friendly format) are placed with the transcripts and it is handed over to the conservation department for binding. The process is now complete.

Access: As is made clear to narrators, the information on tapes and in transcripts is made available to members of the public at the National Archive on the same basis as other holdings. Tapes must be listened to at the Archive; up to 10 consecutive pages of a transcript may be photocopied. As agreed to by the narrator, the Archive holds the copyright and individuals wishing to use the information in a publication must have Archive permission and use a prescribed citation.

Glossary and Finding Aids

Quite early in the project, we discovered that our elderly narrators frequently used words/terms/expressions which are no longer in common use, and indeed some of our younger users were frequently mystified by them. We began listing these and researching meanings. This has now developed into a Glossary of over 50 pages and growing.

Developing finding aids for researchers is on-going. The document summary mentioned earlier is perhaps the most useful we have at the present, as it enables us to provide a Reader with a list of transcripts which deal with a particular subject in a few seconds. We also have a Catalogue which lists all the interviews alphabetically by narrator, giving district, date and main subject of the interview and a list of narrators arranged by district.

It has been gratifying to see the positive response to the Memory Bank and utilization of it has grown steadily - in 1998 Readers accessed 407 transcripts and 38 tapes. It is equally gratifying to see the results of the use of the Memory Bank's resources; school children performing traditional songs that were in danger of being lost for a delighted audience of senior citizens, for example. The Public Library is using information from the Memory Bank as they prepare for their 60th anniversary later this year. Over and over people express their gratitude that this work is being done to preserve Caymanian culture. One university student expressed it this way: "The Memory Bank has taught me that the most intriguing history doesn't originate in textbooks, but in the everyday experiences of my ancestors. Through the tales of Cayman's elderly, my heritage comes alive."

Some Ways Memory Bank Information Has Been Used:

*National Museum Special Exhibits
*Cayman National Cultural Foundation Productions
*National Trust Information Sheets
*Publication Cayman Yesterdays
*Publication The '32 Storm
*Publication Traditional Songs from the Cayman Islands
*Publication My Markings (biography of an intuitive artist)
*Restoration of Pedro Castle (Cayman's oldest building)
*C.I. Social Studies Learning Packets
*Caribbean Conservation Association's Traditional Fishing Methods Project for Schools
*Radio Series `Looking Back'
*Newspaper Series `Time Was'
*Numerous Homework/Research Projects by Middle/High School/University Students and Teachers
*Radio Public Service Announcements
*Family Tree/Family History Research
*Research by Published Authors
*Research for Nominations for Community Awards
*Exhibitions for Community Events
*Research into Traditional Cooking Methods and Recipes
*Research on Traditional Medicine/Medicinal Plants
*Preparation of Obituaries

Questions and discussion


1. Upper end of limit - recommended band is 40-60.

2. Reel-to-reel tape is bigger, heavier and longer lasting than cassette tape.


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