Veterans History Project casts wide net

Veterans History ProjectThe Veterans History Project is casting a wide net for 20th and 21st century wartime stories. The project is soliciting submissions from veterans –and civilians who directly participated – during the conflicts of WWI, WW2, Korean War, Vietnam War, Persian Gulf War, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Back in April of this year, Sarah Rouse, Senior Program Officer of the VHP, spoke at the Southwest Oral History Association’s annual meeting. Rouse described the project’s wide scope.

While many oral history projects are focused on a limited population, the Veterans History Project stands with the Slave Narrative Collection, the 1930’s WPA effort to record the recollections of as many living former slaves as possible, or the Shoah Project, which collects personal narratives of those survivors of the Nazi holocaust. Like these other collections, the Veterans History Project’s purpose is to collect, archive and curate as many personal recollections as it possibly can.

I like the fact that this national effort, funded by Congress and run through the Library of Congress’s American Folk Life division, is rooted in family oral history. Congressman Ron Kind of Wisconsin was at a family picnic when his dad and uncle began to talk about their wartime experiences. He said “wait!” and grabbed a videocamera, in order to get the stories so his sons could see them when they grew older.

“What inspired me to do that was a picnic table conversation that I was having with my own father, who served during the Korea war conflict, as well as his brother – my uncle – who was a bomber pilot in the Pacific during the Second World War. And they, for the very first time, started talking about their experience serving our nation during those two conflicts. This was the first time I heard it.”

And—though it has more to do with news stories about Ken Burns and The War, his WW2 documentary that begins tonight than about the Veterans History Project itself, the “first time I heard it” phenomenon is shared by both. Ron Kind’s father and uncle said things he’d never heard. I wrote a post and speculated on the ratio of surprises per minutes of recorded interview, and about the Ken Burns says that after some interviews, or during breaks, family members of the interviewees would say things like, “I’ve never heard him say that before.” Burns observerd that the WW2 veteran generation is at an age where they’re ready to talk and pass on stories for posterity.

What goes on behind the scenes of a national effort to collect as many stories of wartime as possible? Sarah Rouse gave the gathered oral historians and archivists a peek behind the scenes. The Veterans History Project had—as of April—a total of 45,000 submissions; this week’s statement from the VHP puts the current total at 50,000. The VHP is receiving 1000 submissions per month; they expect that number to grow as more people learn of the Veterans History Project in conjunction with Ken Burns, PBS, and The War (the news of the partnership between Burns and the PBS and the Library of Congress was a scant week and a half old at the time of Rouse’s presentation). The Project’s staff has grown from 4 to 15 people. (My memory’s hazy here, but I believe they were looking to add some staff in anticipation of the higher number of submissions beginning this fall.)

image image
Right image: Library of Congress blog

Sarah Rouse showed us one photos of unprocessed submissions to the Veterans History Project. It wasn’t a very exciting image on the surface cardboard boxes. Stacks of large-format envelopes. FedEx. UPS. Shipping boxes. Stacked tightly. She showed us another image of the stored collection, containing submissions that have been catalogued and processed. Neither the newly arrived nor the later-processed boxes looked quite like the left image of a shelf of archival boxes, nor the right photo of someplace inside the Library of Congress (image from the LOC blog). Nor did the images look like something from the final scene out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. It takes a bit of imagination stretching to consider the kind of treasure inside—the stories and accounts of experiences of so many people. The humble boxes are filled with treasures.

(The VHS web site refers to each individual submission as a “collection” as in, if you wish to send us additional materials, just tell us some info and we’ll add it to your collection. I use “collection” to refer to the sum total of 50,000+ submissions.)

Rouse also showed us a photo of a newly-arrived submission from a veterans group. The shipping box contained dozens of manila envelopes, one for each veteran. Inside the envelope was a disk (CD or DVD), photographs—“then” and “now” images of the veteran, and paperwork—recording log, biographical sheet, and agreement forms for interviewer and interviewee. Ms. Rouse said that kind of organized submission was a pleasure to work with.  They accept recordings in all forms, but they strongly discourage people from using microcassettes (for good reason—microcassettes aren’t good for “we want to store this for posterity” recordings).

It takes a year from the time that a submission comes out of its initial box to the time that it appears—processed—onto the website. Processing an individual’s submission involves entering biographical data into the Access database, entering keywords, typing in the tape log, and cataloguing the exact nature of the person’s contributions.

There are separate steps for digitizing submitted tapes, and—the slowest phase of all—transcribing the interviews. Only 10% of the submissions are transcribed. The Holy Grail of Best Submission Format is an interview that is accompanied by a transcription.  Those are rare, so the Project encourages that each submission includes an index, or tape log with detailed description of subjects covered in the interview. The National Court Reporters Association has a volunteer program where its members may receive continuing education credit for transcribing interviews. This partnership came about through the help of Ron Kind’s wife.

In addition to oral history interviews, the Veterans History Project accepts written memoirs, and submissions of diaries, letters, photographs and other flat (think “paper”) memorabilia.

I recorded an interview with Sarah Rouse about what, for the technically savvy person, is the absolute bestest digital form that a submission could take. I’m following up on a few details, but will post that interview and additional information this week.


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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on September 23, 2007 in • Oral History ServicesTranscriptionVeterans History Project
1 CommentsPermalink

« Previous Veterans History Project Medal Controversy: Fraud or Clerical Error? | Two Companion Web Sites to Ken Burns’s The War Next »


my father was in ww2 and died in 1981,i wish i would have thought to record his stories.i believe this is a worth wile project.

woody  on 09/24  at  11:07 AM

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