University of Kentucky Investing in Oral History

We all have a story. Storytelling has been an essential element throughout human history and has allowed us to entertain, educate, inspire and enlighten.

Last week it was announced that the University of Kentucky is investing in its oral history program as a way to make sure that stories, interviews and experiences of the past, continue to have a voice for years to come. The project is part of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at UK.

So far there have been more than 9,000 interviews logged, with features ranging from black farmers, to WWII veterans, to Kentucky legislators.

This reminds me of the StoryCorps program, which according to its website, has been around since 2003 and logged more than 45,000 interviews with more than 90,000 participants. That’s a lot of stories.

Programs like StoryCorps and the oral history project at UK are important because it gives later generations a sense of perspective and context beyond that found within a textbook. I think back to the Great Depression and how Franklin Delano Roosevelt — desperate to get Americans back to work — formed the Works Progress Administration as part of his New Deal. A subset of the WPA was the Federal Writers’ Project which employed artists, musicians and poets, to use their talents to interview people and tell stories. Out of that, came the Slave Narratives.

The Slave Narratives were a series of interviews conducted with former slaves during the mid 1930s (who, by that time, were well into their 70s and 80s) that spoke about their lives and experiences growing up in slavery. These interviews proved invaluable. It’s one thing to hear about slavery from a historical/economic context; it’s truly another to hear the harsh realities of the institution from someone who’s lived it.

That’s where the real value of programs like StoryCorps and the University of Kentucky’s oral history project can be seen. Hearing people in their own words, tell their own stories, is a powerful supplement to history.

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