Hastings Oral History Project Looks To The Future

May 5, 2017, 6:45 a.m. ·

Dr. Michella Marino and student Brian Whetstone at Hastings College. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

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A professor and a group of her students at Hastings College in Hastings, Nebraska want to change the game when it comes to oral history in the state. They’ve started an ambitious on-line project that aims to capture the local voices of an era that came and went more than 40 years ago. The Hastings Oral History Initiative wants to make those voices accessible to everyone.

In McCormick Hall, one of the oldest buildings on campus, there’s a project that’s looking to the future as a way of preserving the past.

Dr. Michella Marino is an assistant professor of history and teaches an oral history class. Last semester, she had an idea. Oral history projects aren’t really anything new, but in the past, those recordings have typically ended up in dusty archives somewhere, never to be heard again. So, with the help of her students, she started building a digital, on-line archive of recorded interviews the students had done as part of the class.

Dr. Michella Marino, history professor at Hastings College. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“The average person doesn’t have time to go drive somewhere to an archive, sit down, (and) listen to hours and hours of interviews,” Marino said. “So if you can do that in the luxury of your own home, I just think that’s sort of a game-changer for practicing oral history and I do think that’s where we’re moving as a field and that’s something I want myself and my students to help contribute to that shift.”

The class of two dozen students each interviewed two local residents about the Vietnam War era. What they recorded was eye-opening and helped them realize the importance of capturing oral history.

“I had students come into my office in near tears, of you know, I did not know this about my grandparents. I did not know they had these experiences,” Marino said. “I feel like they did really get it by the end and really felt like they were contributing and helping create history in ways that they certainly didn’t anticipate or understand at the beginning of the semester.”

Brian Whetstone, junior at Hastings College. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

Brian Whetstone is a junior history major and also works in the college’s archives. He has an interest in preserving history and has also put a lot of work into the new digital archive project. He thinks there’s something about a human voice telling a story from the past that’s more compelling than an old document.

“I think it’s easier to connect to when you know you’re listening to another human being just talk about their experiences,” Whetstone said. “There’s some kind of disconnect when you’re reading a historical letter or a newspaper where there’s sort of a barrier between you and the person who created that source. Whereas you go and you listen to an oral history interview and that’s the person’s words coming out of their mouths at the time they were living.”

Whetstone believes getting the recorded conversations into an online archive was the obvious thing to do, but keeping them there might be a little harder.

Hastings College campus in Hastings, Nebraska. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“That’s one of the sort of difficult things about doing humanities and history online, is primary sources,” Whetstone said. “The goal of preserving a primary source is to kind of keep it the same and keep it from changing or being destroyed and it’s hard to have constants in kind of an evolving digital world.”

Whetstone and Marino want to expand their digital online oral history project. They’re asking anyone in the community who wants to record their history to contact them. It doesn’t have to be just about the Vietnam War era. Some of the interviews already in the archive include discussions about NASA and the space race.