The Center was recently featured in the Baton Rouge Advocate newspaper, in a story by Greg Langley.
Historians can write books detailing troop movements and the numbers of casualties, but when a person describes the experience of battle, of being wounded — the fear, the pain, the uncertainty — you can’t help but listen. The first-hand narrative is gripping no matter what the subject. Americans are rediscovering that through popular oral history projects like NPR’s StoryCorps which travels the country collecting people’s spoken memories of everything from Hurricane Katrina to an ice storm in Nashville, to a bus ride in New Orleans.
LSU has its own version of StoryCorps in the guise of the T. Harry Williams Oral History Center. The center, with offices in the Agnes Morris House on Raphael Simms Drive, collects oral histories on a variety of Louisiana-related subjects. Jennifer Abraham is director of the center, which is part of LSU Libraries’ Special Collections.
“We were founded in 1991,” Abraham said. The center was named for historian T. Harry Williams, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and longtime LSU professor who used tape recorded interviews to collect information for his Huey Long books. Williams developed interview techniques that were used to collect information about the university itself.
“Our goal began as documenting the university history,” Abraham said.
As the first project got under way, the shaggy dog story nature of oral history quickly became apparent.
“We started out concentrating on LSU history in the 1930s and that led to the Great Depression, and then politics and that led to World War II,” Abraham said.
Now, “Our mission concentrates on LSU history, military history, political history, civil rights and women’s history. That’s what staff collects,” she said. That “staff” is three people. So they need a little help.
“What we do to increase our holdings is collaborate with other groups. And those other groups include LSU and the university community,” Abraham said. “On the other side of the spectrum, we collaborate with community groups, and they can include historical societies, churches and libraries, students, scholars and individuals who want to document the history of a particular group.”
Among the projects the center has compiled were series about Acadian Handcrafts, land use and landscaping in a black community south of New Iberia, Americans in Vietnam, the Brusly Centennial, The Cajun Village Museum, the civil rights movement in Baton Rouge, Food and Memory in Spanish-Speaking Louisiana, Islenos Heritage, Hurricane Betsy Survivor Stories of the Lower 9, LSU Law School and many more subjects.
Once a subject for documentation is chosen, the center collects information through recorded interviews conducted by trained interviewers.
“Interviewers have to do a lot of research before they go out and do an interview,” Elaine Smyth, head of special collections, said.
The interviews are usually done at the person’s home or church or other convenient location, Abraham said. Each interview takes about an hour and each subject is interviewed from one to three times. Right now, no video is being collected, she added.
“We sometimes do take photographs of people when we interview them,” Abraham said. The information collected has to be processed, fact-checked and converted to digital formats, she said. It’s a long process and with the small staff, there is a backlog.
All the tapes, transcripts and photographs are part of LSU Special Collections, said Smyth.
“Anybody can come in and use these for research.”
“Or, eventually, all these things will be on the digital library, on the Internet,” Abraham added. “We’re working on that right now.”
That will mean that the material will be accessible online.
“We are digitizing,” Abraham said. The amount of information is so immense, the staff is going slowly, hoping not to outrun their server capacity before more storage can be added. But the center continues to aggressively pursue interview projects. Often the projects are done in conjunction with a photographic exhibit, as was the case with the Flood of 1927 and the current exhibit at Hill Library, A Century of Standard Oil in Baton Rouge, which is on display through Aug. 15, in Lower Main Gallery. The oral history center is working to collect more recordings of people who remember the early years of the Standard Oil Refinery in Baton Rouge, those who worked there or lived nearby or did business with the refinery.
“It’s the 100-year anniversary of the plant,” Smyth said. “It’s an area I really want to explore, to document industry in Louisiana, the controversies and environmental impact.”
Funding for the center comes from the university, Abraham said, and from contributions from private donors.
“Donors are incredibly important,” Smyth said.
Even if you don’t give money, you might have another precious gift to offer: a story. The center want stories from everyone.
“We’re out to get a cross section,” Abraham said.
“Oral history is a great way to democratize history,” she said. “You get multiple perspectives.”
The best way to contact the oral history center, Abraham said, is by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; or you can call the center at (225) 578-6577. Instructions and forms with more information about oral history interviews are available at the center Web site: http://www.lib.lsu.edu/special/williams/index.html