Oral Histories Provide Personality to Oregon State University Archives

Before we wrote, photographed, or videoed every event – from our expertly plated tuna niçoise salad to our chemtrails conspiracy theories – we told our history to each other in stories. Around fires, at dinner tables, and in town squares, elders entrusted the next generation with important dates and happenings.

There were problems with this method, sure. Unrecorded facts are difficult to verify, and dead elders cannot corroborate. Still, historians know the value of personal stories, and when portable recording equipment became cheap and efficient in the 1940s, a new tradition of oral histories grew up.

“An archive is typically comprised of documents – often official documents,” said Chris Petersen, senior faculty research assistant at the Oregon State University Libraries. “What oral history does is provide personality to these records.”

OSU’s oral history tradition is documented in an exhibit up through the end of March at the OSU Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives Research Center (SCARC), located on the Valley Library’s fifth floor.

The OSU collection began in the 1970s at the university’s now-defunct Horner Museum (closed in the 1990s after property tax limitations from Oregon’s Proposition 5 resulted in OSU budget cuts), where curators conducted interviews with significant figures in OSU history, as well as members of local industries like forestry and engineering and Native American tribes.

Now, curators at the library are making a concerted effort to add more voices to the collections, recording hundreds of new video interviews with past and present Oregonians.

Petersen is leading one of the library’s biggest oral history projects, a set of nearly 250 interviews with significant figures in OSU’s history for the university’s sesquicentennial in 2018. The collection includes interviews with faculty from every college, alumni from every decade from the 1930s to the present, and current students and university employees. Petersen said he hopes the collection will generate understanding of important campus events and personalities, as well as paint a picture of what it was like to be on campus at a particular time.

“We’re documenting now and providing a time capsule for the future,” Petersen said.

Other newer collections document Oregon’s cultural communities and history of hops and brewing. Across all the projects, there is an effort to include a diverse array of voices and include communities that have been underrepresented.

“I would never pretend we’ve done a complete history of the place,” Petersen said, “but my hope is that people who interact with this collection will at least see a piece of their experience reflected back.”

Those interested in the sesquicentennial interviews can browse them online by theme or college affiliation. All collections are accessible online, and curators are working to make more collections easily found. Already, Petersen’s interviews with Linus Pauling, Jr. have served as source material for two books, and he is excited about the possibilities that future oral history projects hold.

“If you have an interview that opens up a new thread of inquiry, that’s important,” he said.

Catching Stories: The Oral History Tradition at Oregon State University will be up through the end of March at the OSU Valley Library’s Special Collections, located on the fifth floor. Stay tuned for more on the sesquicentennial oral history project, which is set for its official debut in November. In the meantime, you can learn all about OSU’s oral history archives online at scarc.library.oregonstate.edu/oralhistory. Volunteer transcriptionists are welcome. 

By Maggie Anderson