Everyone’s All In: A Case Study of Integrating Oral Histories Into the Classroom

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Oral histories can be a dynamic tool to engage the university and regional stakeholders, expand collections, fill in collecting weaknesses and represent otherwise marginalized communities. At the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV), we have a robust oral history collection and have long had an interest in integrating the oral history process with other departments interested in the same pursuit. Two years ago, Special Collections & University Archives began discussions with an enthusiastic faculty member about what this may look like. Over the course of the last semester, we integrated two librarians into a 20th Century U. S. History course and guided students in oral history creation, best practices, and methodology. The final deliverable of this course was the creation of a digital oral history of a local figure by each student. These digital files were then placed into UTRGV’s Special Collections & Archives Digital Collections and became public-facing. Through this integration, students researched local history, learned the pros and cons of oral histories, and vetted their choice of persons. The requirement of both historic and archival research gave the students a fuller understanding of how to practice history as a field, and the role that archives play in that work. With students in charge of capturing these stories, they became stewards of their local history. This stewardship broke down the barrier between archivists and historians – a promising collaboration in libraries and archives. The students, many of them future historians, confronted and reframed different narratives in history, bringing about many questions about the fabric of the historical record. If two interviewees made contradictory statements about the same event, what did that mean? Was one of them “right”? How does this oral history change one’s understanding of this event? What silences are there in the record? How would these interviews be understood now, and how will that change 10, 20, or 50 years from now? In addition to reframing how students understood history and the role of archives in curating it, this collaboration also increased engagement between Special Collections and UTRGV’s students, an important departmental mandate. This course collaboration also served as outreach for the archives and for the types of materials we host, brought gaps in our resources to our attention, and increased our holdings, especially in terms of resources regarding traditionally underrepresented parts of our community. These digital derivatives expand our digital collections and our online footprint. This presentation will serve as a case study and offer insights on both the successes and complications of this undertaking. We will discuss the genesis of this collaboration as well as the integration of archival work and digital resource management into the classroom, as well as the project’s outcomes, its postmortem, and the potential for similar work in the future.

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Breaking Down Barriers at TCDL 2019