Why We Need Oral Histories

By Kacie Lucchini Butcher

The research in this blog post was completed as a part of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Public History Project. The three-year project aims to reckon with the university’s history of racism, exclusion, and discrimination. The project will culminate in an exhibit in the fall of 2021, an interactive online website, and curricular tools. By sharing research before the opening of the exhibit, we hope to begin conversations about the history of UW–Madison and discuss how we can all work towards building a more equitable campus community. The nature of historical research is that it will always be incomplete. It is impossible for us to know everything that happened in the past. Therefore, the research in this post is imperfect, as all history is. Our student researchers have completed the research below with all of the historical documents available to them at the time of publication. There will be alternative perspectives to those detailed below. We believe that the discussions that arise out of these differing perspectives are an integral part of the process of reckoning with our history. We welcome responses and discussion. Responses submitted by email will be posted in a response and discussion post within one week after the original publication date. Responses with vulgar or offensive language will not be posted.

Tucked away on the 4th floor of Steenbock Library, you will find The University of Wisconsin–Madison Archives. This blocky, non-descript concrete building holds the history of UW–Madison — legacies of innovation, academic success, institutional organization, and community. Only a front desk and a friendly staff stand between you and the overwhelming collection of documents, materials, and objects that represent the whole history of this campus.

Well… maybe not the whole history.

In the 150+ year history of UW–Madison, hundreds of thousands of employees, students, faculty, and staff have walked through these halls, sat by these serene lakes, and worked in buildings that still stand (and some that do not) (and some that, frankly, we don’t know how are still standing). How could we possibly keep every bit of historical information that may document their entire experience here? Every flyer? Every letter? Every piece of paper? It is impossible. But, ever dedicated, librarians and archivists have tried.

Thanks to these tireless efforts, we have a lot of historical information about UW–Madison… but we do not have it all. Archives, like those housed in Steenbock, are constantly making choices about what is important to preserve (often restricted by what they are able to preserve) and what is not. As archivists will tell you, there are many reasons why some documents get kept and others do not.

The documents that often get kept are those of important institutional figures like Chancellors, Provosts, and Presidents. Their records are organized, well maintained, and thorough, making them easy to transfer to an archive for preservation. In other instances, for example, student organizations, the preservation of materials is more difficult. Students spend limited time at UW–Madison, on average 4–5 years, and they leave the institution, taking much of their history with them. Without a dedicated student archivist to solicit promotional materials like flyers, organizational materials like meeting minutes, how then do we remember the great impacts these organizations have on our campus? It becomes much more challenging.

These are only some of the issues faced by archives. There is the philosophical — what do we preserve? — but what is often more pressing is the organizational and financial — who will process, catalog, and digitize this information? Where will it be stored? How will it be stored? How will the materials be accessed and used? Is there enough financial support to continue the time consuming and expensive archival process?

All of this to say, the archives tend to represent those who are well organized and well-staffed, the administration, and the experiences of students in the majority on campus. At a primarily white institution like UW–Madison, the archives are over represented with the experiences of white students, staff, and faculty.

The Public History Project was expressly conceived to work against this. We have been charged to uncover the histories of exclusion, discrimination, and resistance through the voices and stories of those whose history has not been represented. Stories of discrimination, stories of resistance, stories of community that center the way people of color experience UW–Madison have been largely left out of our historical narrative. These are the stories we do not often tell, the stories not saved in our archive, and the ones that will be the most difficult to uncover.

How then do we begin to tell these narratives? As historians, we want to tell complete stories, shed light on unknown narratives, and help to create a more complete picture of the past… but the archives will never hold all the information we need.

Oral history is one way we try to uncover those lost to the past.

Prior to archives, prior to history as a field, prior even to the written language, civilizations have shared stories. This makes oral history both, “the oldest type of historical inquiry… and one of the most modern, initiated with tape recorders in the 1940s and now using 21st-century digital technologies.”[1] In Doing Oral History, Donald Ritchie explains, “Oral History collects memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews.”[2] He is quick to clarify that this does not include random tapings, recorded speeches, wiretappings, or other sound recordings that have two or more participants. Instead, oral history is a process that includes a well-prepared interviewer questioning an interviewee about their life, their experiences, or a part of their history. These recordings are often transcribed, summarized, and placed into archives and libraries and may be used by researchers and in public facing projects like documentaries, exhibits, and publications. Oral histories often supplement other historical materials and work towards filling in gaps of information not covered in the written historical record.

In this way, oral history is an essential tool for historians. It helps us to capture individual experiences, understand how people feel the larger forces of history, and record and document these experiences for future generations. When taken with the knowledge that archives are inherently missing information, and that humans inevitably pass away taking their stories with them, oral history becomes an even more critical tool. I would argue an integral tool for historians of recent history. Without it, we will continue to miss the experiences of those who are often left out of the historical record — communities of color.

There is some good news. UW–Madison has an Oral History Program housed in the University Archives. Lead by Oral Historian Troy Reeves, the program has over 1,900 interviews (nearly 5,000 hours of audio). Troy will be the first one to tell you that many of the early oral history interviews tend to follow the archival trend mentioned above — a uncritical focus on white people’s history. However, recently the program has worked to shift that balance, creating initiatives like the African American Athletes at UW Oral History Project , The LGBTQ+ Archive and Oral History Program, and partnering with the Public History Project to create a collection that focuses specifically on communities of color and their experience of UW–Madison. Strides are being made to include all voices in the history of UW–Madison.

Oral history is a core component of the Public History Project expressly because of the issues covered above. Oral histories may be the only way we recover some of the histories missing from the archive. Unless, of course, someone has access to a time machine. (If so, please contact me.)

As the Director of the Public History Project, I know this is a monumental task. I feel the weight of this responsibility every day, because I believe this work is vital and necessary to creating a campus that is truly equitable.

Yet, I cannot do it alone. Neither can the student researchers. We need the campus community. We need people who were here, who are now here, and who will be here to tell us their stories.  Not only so that as a project, we can bring these stories to light, but also so that as a campus community, this history will be preserved.

This is my way of asking you to join us. As a public historian, I believe this project will be most successful when it engages the campus community. If you have a story to share, we want to hear from you. Together, we can create a more complete picture of UW–Madison. Together, we can create a more equitable campus.

Individuals are not often taught to think of themselves as sources of historical knowledge, but they are. Individuals hold intimate knowledge of their campus, their neighborhoods, and their communities. That is why we want to hear from you. We believe that this project will be the most successful when it deeply engages all of those in our community. If you have a story to share, an event you think should be researched, or a person you think has been overlooked, please contact us. publichistoryproject@wisc.edu

[1]Oral History: Defined,” Oral History Association Member Site, Oral History Association, January 21, 2020.

[2] Donald Ritchie, Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).