Oral History program offers perspectives on Nevada's past

8/5/2009 | By: Skyler Dillon  |

With income from grants, contracts, sales, and gifts — and enjoying new status as part of the University of Nevada, Reno’s history department — the University of Nevada’s Oral History program will continue to record and preserve Nevada’s remembered past. Former director Tom King, who retired January 1, 2009, after 25 years with the program, is pleased with the prospects for the program’s future.

“I thought from the day I set foot on campus that Oral History should be a part of the history department,” he said. “Now it is, and with the fresh ideas, energy, and intelligence of new director Alicia Barber, it is in the best possible hands.”

Assistant Professor Alicia Barber, who serves as director of Public History as well as heading the Oral History Program, noted how central oral history is to Nevada’s sense of identity. “It explores how a community itself thinks of its past,” she explained.

Oral history is the methodology of interviewing people about their life’s experiences, adding first-hand accounts to the historical record. According to Barber, the joining of Oral History and the history department will allow University professors to get more familiar with and make better use of the truly unique interviews that Oral History has documented.

Transcripts of Oral History interviews are available at the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center, at public libraries statewide, and through the program’s website, but the program also publishes much of its research, producing some of the Reno area’s most popular literature like Famiglia e Cucina, which collects stories and recipes from the community’s Italian-American population. The program is also branching out from traditional transcribed interviews to create DVDs and even a book of photographs, called Reno Now and Then, comparing familiar scenes of Reno today to the way those locations looked in the past.

“I’ve assigned papers to students based on Oral History interviews in my own classes, and students have great things to say about the work,” said Barber. “The interviews are in first-person, and they have much more personality and are easier to read than the average history book.”

According to King, the interviews give voice to those in society who might not otherwise leave a record of their lives. Some of his favorite memories of his time with Oral History involve the video documentaries he helped to create of local Native American life, just one example of a lifestyle that Oral History managed to capture and share.

“I was lucky in my career. The University encouraged me to be creative and supported me, even when I took our program down paths not being followed by other oral history programs," he said. “Although projects like the video documentaries and the publishing we do were not in our mission, we were allowed to expand the program, without using state money, to include them.”

In return, Oral History has done much to chronicle the history of the University. King is currently working with Joe Crowley to produce an oral history interview transcript and memoir of the former University president’s time with Nevada, and the program is planning to publish a history of women’s athletics on campus within the next year.

As part of their new partnership, the history department plans to add an Oral History course to its existing public history offerings, which already include introductory classes in Public History and Museum Studies. Barber hopes the Oral History interviews will strengthen the connection between the University and the community as well as enhancing students’ experience in the classroom.

“Oral histories are becoming more and more important as resources, because the electronic age is leaving us with fewer durable records. Simultaneously, we are turning into a less reading-oriented society,” said King. “My generation was primarily print-oriented. Today's students, to a much greater extent, acquire information visually and aurally."

Barber agreed. “Oral History has so much information that is otherwise not available,” she said. “It taps into the minds of individuals who would otherwise never get their story out. It’s amazing how much people can tell us about our past.”


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