Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Oral History Taking Shape

I’ve posted here before about the oral history project we’re currently producing, Reflections on Georgia Politics. I’m excited that this is becoming a real foundational project for the future of oral history at UGA, and thought I would take a few paragraphs this week to write about where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going with our oral history programs.

Past to the Present…
Oral history has been central to the Russell Library’s mission even before the Library opened its doors in 1974. Following Senator Richard B. Russell’s death in 1971, the Russell Foundation sponsored a series of interviews under the direction of Hugh Cates, who worked for Southern Bell and who was the secretary of the Foundation. The Richard B. Russell Jr. Oral History Collection now consists of 175 interviews collected between 1971 and 2002, with the bulk of the collection being taped in the early 1970s. Offering insights into Richard Russell’s life by friends, family, colleagues, and assistants, the collection itself is a who’s who of Georgia politics.

In the 1980s and 1990s the Russell Library actively collected oral histories, either commissioned by the Library or recorded by others for independent purposes. Among these is the 185-interview Dean Rusk Oral History Collection, taped by Richard Rusk and Thomas Schoenbaum in the 1980s, in preparation for their books on Rusk. As an oral history project documenting Dean Rusk’s life, in his own words, it is unrivalled at the Russell Library in its depth and scope. Agribusinessman D.W. Brooks is documented in over 12 interviews made in 1987-88, while Hal Henderson’s interviews with Ellis Arnall, Herman Talmadge, and Ernest Vandiver (collected for his biographies of Arnall and Vandiver) paint a vivid picture of gubernatorial politics from 1943 to 1966.

In the 2000s, the Russell Library increasingly became involved in creating highly-produced single interviews while also sponsoring student-run oral history projects. The results are aggregated in the Russell Library Oral History Documentary Collection, which contains wonderful videotaped interviews with Griffin Bell and Carl Sanders, among other politically prominent individuals, as well as a multi-part interview with individuals involved in the creation of Sandy Creek Park in Athens. Oral history collections also came to the Russell Library in the form of documentary film collections. These include the interviews done for the Foot Soldier Project documentaries on Horace Ward and Hamilton Holmes, and interviews with John Ehrlichman and others involved in the events surrounding Watergate, for the documentary (never broadcast) John Ehrlichman: In the Eye of the Storm.

Where Do We Go From Here?
Over the next three years we plan to continue with Reflections on Georgia Politics while migrating our analogue-formatted interviews to digital formats, making more interviews available for online research. Upon our move into the new Special Collections Building (in 2011 or early 2012), I envision the Russell Library becoming a center for oral history in Georgia. The plans for the new building include an oral history gallery and studio. The studio space (nestled in the heart of the gallery) will offer a comfortable environment where interviews can be recorded and visitors can watch the process happen. In addition to the Russell, UGA’s other special collections libraries – The Hargrett Rare Books & Manuscripts Library and the Walter J. Brown Media Archives – will be able to utilize this space for their own oral history projects. The gallery will be technology enhanced to allow visitors a variety of options for exploring interviews by subject or interviewee, as well as text panels that provide instruction for budding oral historians.

As we look forward, our goals for the oral history program become both broader and more focused – developing a structure for collecting that will stand the test of time while expanding into new interview subjects that bring an increased depth to knowledge of Georgia’s history. So stay tuned, we’re just getting started.

Post by Craig Breaden, Head of Media and Oral History, Russell Library

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