Bicentennial Oral History Project Tells The Story Of IU Through Various Voices

(BLOOMINGTON) – Seeds for the Indiana University Bicentennial Oral History Project were planted in 2008 when volunteers in the Office of the President and the University Archives began recording oral histories of IU Bloomington alumni. The project expanded in 2016 when the staff was hired for the project, including bicentennial archivist Kristin Browning Leaman.

Starting with alumni, the project grew to include voices of students, faculty and staff with varying experiences. Some of the stories told in the histories are recent, while others date back as far as the 1940s.

Leaman said the oral histories add a human element to university records.

“I think it builds a greater understanding and empathy of our historical record,” she said. “And it’s not just on paper; you actually hear somebody’s voice and you hear their emotions, and I think that’s very important.”

Many of the interviews become emotional, as participants recount painful or sensitive memories.

“It really does create a mix of emotions from everybody that’s really interesting,” Leaman said. “And we tell people, ‘We’re here to record the good, the bad and the ugly. We’re not here to create this wonderful glimmering story.’ It’s everything, and sometimes history is messy.”

The project is intended to be as inclusive as possible, to reach out to all voices in a sensitive way that makes participants feel safe sharing their stories.

“I want to make sure that we are just creating a resource that allows people to feel a part of the historical record and eliminate as many gaps as possible,” Leaman said.

Capturing the stories

The process for creating and uploading the histories is long and tedious, to ensure quality recordings that match with a time-stamped transcript.

“Really, for a one-hour interview, it could take anywhere from 15 to 20 hours with the manpower it takes for the transcript and the interview,” Leaman said. “It takes a lot of time to do it right.”

The process starts with interviewing the participant, on or off campus, sometimes via phone if they are in a different state. Each interview has the same baseline questions that lead into various follow-up questions depending on the participant.

After the interview, the recording is run through voice recognition software to develop a rough transcript. Student volunteers edit the transcripts for consistency using a style guide. After the transcript is edited and checked for factual accuracy, it is reviewed and placed into a folder with the audio files. From there, the transcripts are timestamped and uploaded to the oral history site.

“It sounds like a very long and tedious process, but it runs like a well-oiled machine now,” Leaman said.

With help from Library Technologies, the option for a full-text search was built into the website. Researchers can explore the transcripts based off a single keyword, then see where that word is mentioned in each transcript and click on the timestamp to hear that exact part.

“It was really important to us to have something like this, because otherwise it makes it impossible for researchers to do their work,” Leaman said.

Oral histories to explore

In Ruth DiSilvestro’s oral history, the Tennessee native recalls the time when a young man teased her about her southern accent after she recited her meal ticket to a cashier in the Eigenmann Hall cafeteria. That lighthearted joke led to a lifetime together as the two got married after college.

DiSilvestro graduated from IU in 1971 with a Master of Arts in teaching. In her oral history, she recognizes her favorite professors, reminisces about IU basketball and discusses her current involvement with IU.

“I’ve enjoyed every aspect of IU, from being a student to being an administrator to being faculty to being an active alumni and community member here,” DiSilvestro said. “We just think IU’s great.”

Budding scientist Gloria Scott started at IU in 1955, majoring in zoology and minoring in botany and French. As a Black woman in a predominantly white male field, she said she had to prove herself to receive good grades in her science courses. One professor even asked if she was in the right class, since most Black students were education majors. Scott went on to serve in multiple leadership positions for her dorm and then later after college.

Although she faced discrimination, Scott said she had people on her side, including then-President Herman B Wells, who always welcomed her to IU and into predominantly white restaurants.

“And again, President Wells and Dean (Robert H.) Shaffer and some of the other staff members would go down there and would sit, or whatever, and open up and make them take Black students with them, and of course, they didn’t dare say they wouldn’t serve them then and so forth,” Scott said.

1944 graduate Betty Empson was a home economics major at IU during World War II. She worked at the union and cafeteria, and she remembers buying milkshakes for only 10 cents and making 30 cents an hour at her job.

Empson also talked about campus blackouts during the war.

“Well, if you thought enemy planes were coming, you would want the town blacked out, the whole town, because they wouldn’t know where to drop the bombs,” said Empson, was also featured in the movie “Indiana University Goes to War.” “If they had the lights on, they could tell by the number of lights on where the central of civilization is and so on, so we had to go through blackouts just like military.”

Thomas Balanoff studied at IU from 1968 to 1972, a time in which many students were engaged in political conversations and activism. He grew up in a progressive family and found a strong sense of community among his fellow liberal activists at IU. He recalls supporting the women’s and gay rights movements and participating in multiple protests during his time as a student.

Balanoff, who was active in student government, joined a protest against the Cambodian campaign in 1970. “It was at least a couple weeks’ strike,” he said. “It didn’t get real violent, didn’t get real militant. I’ll never forget, we closed down the administration building; we put chains around it.”

The project continues

The IU Bicentennial Oral History Project is one of the ongoing bicentennial legacy projects. The collection will be transferred from the Office of the Bicentennial to the IU Archives this summer, continuing under Leaman’s direction with the help of student interns across all IU campuses.

“I can tell you that without our students, we wouldn’t have transcripts, and we wouldn’t have interviews, because they did a huge amount of them, hundreds,” she said. “That’s something that’s a point of pride for me in this project as well, is that we really got our students involved systemwide.”

The goal is for people in the future to use this resource to hear various perspectives and reflect on how much things have changed.

“I would hope that when IU is celebrating its 300th birthday, they can look back and say, ‘Oh my gosh, all of these voices, people from the 1940s, can you imagine?'” Leaman said. “And they can actually get a sense of what the campus was like, what it was like to be a student, but not just a student — a student who identifies LGBTQ+, a student who was a person of color, or was a part of student government, or as part of several other clubs, faculty members, staff members; there are so many different perspectives.”

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