Alicia Hopkins is a graduate student in the University of Illinois School of Information Science and an archives assistant at the Student Life and Culture Archives.
The University Archives has been collecting oral histories for quite some time. These personal stories cover a wide range of topics including the Great Depression, university administration, Project 500, and other student experiences. This aptitude for preserving oral histories has culminated in the creation of Voices of Illinois, an online portal where you can access recordings, additional resources, learn more about the University Archive’s holdings, and submit your own oral history.
You might find yourself wondering what oral histories are. Oral histories are audio or video recordings that focus on someone’s past personal experiences. They are considered primary sources. Often, oral histories are interviews or conversations though they can also be a singular narrative. The kind of historical events discussed can vary greatly, as does the length of each interview. While some recordings feature the stories of people involved in turbulent, exciting, or otherwise notable events, oral histories can focus on a variety of topics. What this means is that your personal experiences are a valuable contribution to the university’s past!
To contribute to this record of experiences, I spoke with some past students as well as a professor emeritus. As I read about the interviewees and listened to their stories, I saw a common thread. Regardless of when they were on campus, their role on campus, or how often they currently interact with the university, each person noted their part in something bigger than themselves.
The interviews cover a wide range of topics. Vanessa Faurie, who now works at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center, talked about her time at the Daily Illini and how her experience as the editor in chief has influenced her career. Vern Fein detailed his involvement with Vietnam protests, Project 500, Students for a Democratic Society, and other social and political organizations on campus in the 1960s. Vern’s brother, Victor Fein, was a co-founder of Earthworks, a local co-operative business which eventually became the current Strawberry Fields. Together, they provided an in-depth look at the intersections of student life and counter-culture in the 1960s. Wendy Mathewson and Beth Watkins met as freshman in the early 1990s. In their interview, they reflect on the importance of friendship both in college and post-graduation. David and Ann Atkins met while earning teaching degrees in the mid-1990s. They discussed how the campus has evolved and the important academic and life experiences learned as undergraduates.
In any archive, researchers will find documents that construct a historical narrative. Oral histories are additional primary sources that can fill in gaps from left by incomplete document records. Institutions as large as the University of Illinois often have high volumes of administrative paperwork, but these impersonal records often include little about individual experiences. The University is made up of many types of people: students, faculty, employees, visitors, and others as well. We would be missing out on an important piece of the history of this place by not capturing the lives of the people who live and work here. Fortunately, the University Archives makes great effort to include student experiences evidenced by the Student Life and Culture Archives. If you’d like to have your story included in Voices of Illinois, you can learn more at Tell Your Story or by contacting Ellen Swain, Archivist for Student Life and Culture, at firstname.lastname@example.org.