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Thursday, July 31, 2014 12:01 am

Gathering nuts

Springfield’s oral history tradition

ILLUSTRATION BY HECTOR CASANOVA/MCT
In “Squabbling over the inheritance” (June 12), I lamented the fact that the Illinois State Historical Library, which has collected and preserved materials on the state’s political, social and religious history since 1889, has been starved of resources in its new role as an adjunct to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential museum, and risks becoming a library of just the Lincoln era rather than of all Illinois history.  

A quick reading of that complaint might have led some readers to conclude that no non-Lincoln history is being collected at the former ISHL. True, the library does not have the resources to spend on, say, Illinois labor history what was spent to purchase Louise Taper’s collection of Lincoln artifacts, and the library apparently lacks the million bucks to pay for a permanent gallery devoted to the papers of the Adlai Stevenson family, as the family reportedly demands. But its collection continues to grow.

If you can’t afford to buy a bag of hulled walnuts, you can always go into the woods and pick them up off the ground. (Nuts! – that was not intended to be refer to Gore Vidal’s sneer about the “scholar-squirrels.” Oh well. Mighty metaphors from tiny walnuts grow.) The enterprising historian can create his own documents by recording the testimony of living persons about the events and personalities of the day. When the ALPLM was in the planning stages, the then-State Historian, Thomas Schwartz, wisely budgeted for an oral historian. That post has been filled by Mark DePue, who since 2006 has been compiling firsthand testimony about Illinois politics, agriculture and veterans in first-class interviews, which one can “access” at www.oralhistory.illinois.gov.

DePue is the latest of a string of Springfield men who played a surprising large role in the acceptance of oral history as a means of research into the past. William Herndon, Lincoln’s last law partner, was a pioneer in the discipline. Herndon resolved to write a biography of the late president. To find out what he didn’t know about Lincoln’s boyhood and family life in Kentucky and Indiana, Herndon set out to interview by letter and in person, dozens of people who did know. Charles B. Strozier, when he was at Sangamon State University, described that effort as “one of the first oral history projects in America.”

Herndon’s ghost walked again in Springfield in the 1970s. Thanks to Cullom Davis, SSU had an Oral History Office (in 1971) before it had its first upper-level parking lot. The SSU undertaking was not the first oral history program by any means, but it was one of the very first of a new generation of them; in 1984, Davis cowrote what became for a time the standard textbook on oral history techniques. “I’m not sure we were either experimental or innovative,” he said to an interviewer in 2009, “but we caught a wave, we caught a wave and rode with it to some prominence.”

Grants paid for interviews of coal miners and Illinois political figures, but most were done by students in Davis’ oral history classes or by volunteers. The result was 100,000 pages of interview transcripts documenting ethnic groups, coal mining, minority and women’s history, farming, local commerce and labor, historic preservation, World War II, and state politics and government – the last the “Illinois Statecraft” project, the fruits of which I have plucked more than once for this column.

Davis thus began to build “people’s history for a people’s university.” People have always been interviewed for the historical record of course, but they usually were the members of society’s elites, and their recollections were sought to add the human touch to official papers and other documents wherein the real truth was assumed to lay. During the 1960s, interest shifted from chronicling the individual stories of the Somebodies toward collecting those of the Nobodies, what Davis has called “‘the others’ in American and rural life.” The significance of Herndon’s informants was who they knew; the significance of the people Davis sought to record often was who (or perhaps more accurately) what they were. “They may not be individually of enormous consequence, but as groups they’re important,” said Davis. “And the interviews are very important because it is in many cases the only real source for them.”

Interviews are even more important than they were 30 years ago. It used to be that only the uneducated and the poor and the outcast did not, or could not, document their lives. Today, even the educated elites leave few personal documents behind in the form of diaries or letters. The only way to capture their otherwise fugitive utterings is to collect them electronically after the event and preserve them on paper. DePue is doing just that at the moment by interviewing the principals in the Thompson administration – otherwise these Somebodies risk becoming Nobodies.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

Note: The university’s oral history holdings reside among the Special Collections at the UIS Archives at Brookens Library; duplicate sets were donated to Lincoln Library and to the then-Illinois State Historical Library.

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