Oral History

What is Oral History, Anyway?

Oral histories are extraordinarily valuable sources of historical information.  Usually arranged as interviews, they consist of questions posed to an interviewee about their experiences, memories, and stories.  These provide personal anecdotes and context to archival collections, and, therefore, serve as important complements to archives of the pen, paper, and PDF varieties. 

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They can be organized around a specific topic or facet of someone’s life – military service, college years in general, participation in a university program – or, more generally, just discuss memories and experiences.  Often, even those interviews aimed at recording someone’s experiences at one point in their life will feature general questions, to better understand them as a person.

Oral Histories and the UI Archives

The University of Illinois Archives has been conducting and sponsoring oral histories on and off throughout its history, going back to the mid-1960s under Maynard Brichford, the first University Archivist.  In the 2020s, we have multiple projects in varying stages of completion: Documenting COVID-19, the Unit One Living and Learning Community, and a search for the oldest living alumni.  As they are completed, these conversations are added to the Voices of Illinois Oral History Portal, which is a convenient hub for the Archives’ oral histories.

Student Life and Culture-Specific Oral Histories

Some of the collections that are now part of the Voices of Illinois portal were spearheaded by the Student Life and Culture Archives.  To learn more, click on each project title in the panes below!

The Great Depression

During the 1930s, the state of Illinois suffered the effects of the Great Depression, just like the rest of the country. Students at the University of Illinois felt the effects of the economic downturn in a number of ways.

This collection of 45 oral histories was compiled from a series of interviews conducted by the Student Life and Culture Archival Program in 2000, 2001, and 2007 in an effort to document student life at the University of Illinois from the years 1928 to 1938.

The last living interviewee died in December 2021. This makes these recordings all the more important, as they preserve the experiences, memories, thoughts, and voices of those who are no longer here to share them.

Explore the Great Depression collections at the Voices Portal! The physical tapes and transcripts, as well as digital files, are preserved in Record Series 35/3/49, the Archives Alumni Oral History Project Files, 2000-2001.

World War II

World War II brought massive change to the University of Illinois. As thousands of male students were drafted, enrollment declined precipitously, and the men-women ratio on campus changed almost overnight from 3-1 to 1-4. Women filled the vacated slots, populating the staffs of the Daily Illini and Illio, taking control of student activities, and working in jobs usually assigned to men.

Hundreds of faculty and staff members enlisted in the armed forces or secured positions doing military work, including several physicists who were assigned to the Manhattan Project. In what was perhaps their biggest challenge, the administrators had to make room for a host of new visitors–thousands of Army and Navy men dispatched to the University for specialized training.

When the veterans flocked back to the campus after the war, they found a University that had survived the crisis and that had begun to gear up for a new world offering higher education to more and more people.

Explore the World War II collections at the Voices Portal!

Project 500

Special Educational Opportunities Program (Project 500) was the first extensive effort by the University of Illinois to offer equal educational opportunities for all of the residents of Illinois. Spurred by the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, students and community residents urged the university to enroll students traditionally underrepresented on campus. In 1967, only 372 of 30,400 students were black.

In 1968, 565 newly admitted African American and Latino students entered the student body. The details of the project were poorly carried out, and miscommunication between students and the university bureaucracy led to a protest at the Illini Union on September 10, 1968 which resulted in the arrest of 240 black students.

This collection consists of both audio recorded by David Eisenman, assistant dean of students, during the years of Project 500 and recordings of oral interviews with students and administrators involved in the program conducted in the fall of 2018 for the project’s 50th anniversary. For additional information from the University of Illinois Archives see Project 500 Exhibits.

Explore the Project 500 collections at the Voices Portal!

The Vietnam Era: Administrators and Student Activism

In 2008 and 2009, Dan Raymond and Chris D’Arpa of the Student Life and Culture Archival Program conducted interviews with former administrators at the University of Illinois. These administrators were active at the University during the late-1960s and early 1970s when the campus was active with various kinds of student protest. The administrators discuss how the University responded to the changing needs of the student body by providing more opportunities for student organizations on campus.

Explore the Vietnam Era collections at the Voices Portal!

Voices Now

In conjunction with the University of Illinois Sesquicentennial celebrations in 2017 and 2018, the University of Illinois Archives launched the “Voices Now” initiative to conduct new oral history interviews with students, alumni, faculty, and administrators. These recordings cover a wide variety of topics including University housing, student activism, student publications, the Champaign-Urbana community, and more. We are continually adding new interviews to this portal collection.

Explore the Voices Now collections at the Voices Portal!

Delta Sigma Theta

The Alpha Nu Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated was chartered at the University of Illinois on May 16, 1932. In May 2018, members of the Champaign-Urbana Alumnae Chapter returned to campus for a reunion held in the Illini Union where several members were interviewed.

Explore the Delta Sigma Theta collections at the Voices Portal!