Digitizing the Oregon Story: Exciting New Oral History Projects at OHS

June 25, 2019

By Sarah Stroman

The OHS oral history storage area holds a range of media formats, including open reel tapes, audio cassettes, and VHS tapes. In April 2019, the OHS Research Library received a $77,431 grant for an ambitious oral history digitization project that will make available 212 interviews from these obsolete formats that provide unique, firsthand accounts of Oregon politics, law, and government.

In mid-April 2019, Oregon Historical Society (OHS) Library Director Shawna Gandy received a much-anticipated email. In it, she read the four little words that all who work in the humanities long to hear: “You got the grant!” Moments later she waltzed into my office singing, “We got the grant!” *

The grant in question was a Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) 2019 Grant, funded through the State Library of Oregon’s Library Support and Development Services. Each year, the program supports projects in public, academic, research, school, or special libraries. OHS requested, and was awarded, $77,431 for an ambitious oral history digitization project, “Digitizing the Oregon Story: Creating Access to Significant Legal and Political Oral Histories,” that helps fulfill OHS’s mission of preserving our state history and making it accessible to everyone in ways that advance knowledge and inspire curiosity about all the people, places, and events that have shaped Oregon.

The project will make available 212 digitized interviews from the OHS Research Library collections that were originally recorded in obsolescent formats, including open reel tapes, audiocassettes, and VHS tapes. The audio and video recordings document unique, firsthand accounts of Oregon politics, law, and government.

Mercedes Deiz and Betty Roberts, February 8, 1982. OHS Research Library, photo file 909, bb009654

Mercedes Deiz and Betty Roberts, both ground-breaking women in the Oregon judiciary, are pictured here on the occasion of Justice Roberts’ swearing-in ceremony as the first woman on the Oregon Supreme Court, February 8, 1982. Their interviews conducted by the U.S. District Court of Oregon Historical Society will be made available through OHS’s upcoming digitization project. OHS Research Library, photo file 909, bb009654.

Oregon State Democratic Co-Chairman James Redden, Candidate for State Treasurer, ca. 1972. OHS Research Library, photo file no. 895

James Redden, best known for his legal work relating to Native American fishing rights, is pictured here as a candidate for Oregon State Treasurer in about 1972. His interviews as a U.S. District Court judge will be digitized during this project. OHS Research Library, photo file #895.

OHS staff conducted many of the interviews as part of the organization’s oral history program, which was active from 1976 to 2004. These include the Oregon Legislature Oral History Series, part of a decade-long project with Oregon legislators who held office mostly between 1960 and 1998. The remainder come from ongoing collaboration and collection development efforts. A significant portion are from the U.S. District Court series, begun at OHS and currently conducted by the U.S. District Court of Oregon Historical Society (USDCHS), with OHS serving as the designated repository.

Many of these interviews capture important accounts of politicians and public servants who were part of what journalist Floyd McKay calls the “Oregon Story,” in his 2016 book, Reporting the Oregon Story. That story includes a period of progressive legislation and civic action from the 1960s through the mid-1980s that included land-use legislation, the Beach Bill and Bottle Bill, and extensive urban renewal in Portland, all of which brought Oregon national attention.

For example, the USDCHS interviews include discussions about decisions of national importance, including public land disputes and fishing rights, environmental protections, federal Indian policy and tribal sovereignty, and civil rights and law enforcement cases.

Prominent Federal judges interviewed include U.S. District Judge James Redden, best known for legal work and rulings relating to Native American fishing rights, and Alfred T. Goodwin, who served over four decades on the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, both of whose papers reside at OHS. Interviewees also consist of ground-breaking women in the judiciary including Betty Roberts, Oregon’s first female Supreme Court Justice, and Mercedes Deiz, the first black woman to both practice law in Oregon and to be elected as a county circuit court judge.

Sen. Wayne Morse, Sen. Edith Green, and Sen. Richard Neuberger, ca. 1956. OHS Research Library, photo file no. 461-C, neg. no. 37447

From left to right are Sen. Wayne Morse, Sen. Edith Green, and Sen. Richard Neuberger in about 1956. OHS Research Library, photo file #461-C, neg. #37447.

Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, ca. 1972. OHS Research Library, photo file 479-A, ba017640

Several interviews from OHS’s Oregon Legislature series will be digitized with funds from the LSTA grant, including a group of interviews with twenty-three of Sen. Mark O. Hatfield’s congressional aides, staff, and advisors. Hatfield is pictured here in about 1972. OHS Research Library, photo file 479-A, ba017640.

Within the Oregon Legislature series interviews slated for digitization are Congresswoman Edith Green’s 1978 interview that touches on her role in advancing women’s rights and equal opportunity in education, most notably her role as co-author of Title IX, a federal law that prevents discrimination based on sex in programs receiving federal funding. Concurrent with the rise of the feminist movement, the strong bipartisan female caucus which emerged in the Oregon State Legislature is significant to this collection. In addition, a remarkable group of interviews documents the legislative achievements and challenges of the long-serving (1967–1997) and productive Sen. Mark O. Hatfield through the eyes of twenty-three of his congressional aides, staff, and advisors.

Later interviews chronicle the unrivaled events tied to the Rajneeshees in Antelope, Oregon, and the ongoing conflict between environmental concerns and Oregon’s dependence on natural resource extraction, symbolized by the Spotted Owl, as told by Judge Helen Frye. In all, these interviews cover a wide range of Oregon history over a half-century, with prominent leaders and public servants from every branch and level of government.

Comprising over 1,800 hours of recorded sound and video, spanning from 1958 to 2011, the selected interviews are a high priority for digitization as they are in machine-readable formats that are no longer easily accessible and at high risk for deterioration. An outside vendor, The MediaPreserve of Preservation Technologies, will create digital files of the recordings, and the interviews will be digitized, cataloged, and described according to industry best practices.

Processing over two hundred interviews is no small task. OHS has hired two part-time indexers to create Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS) compatible indexes for a selection of the interviews. Because many of the interviews in this collection are extremely long — Robert Packwood’s interview is over 50 hours — transcribing them all would be a time-consuming and costly undertaking. Heavy indexing with synopses and key words, however, will help guide researchers through longer interviews.

The audio files, indexes, and transcripts will be preserved in the OHS Digital Vault and made available through OHS Digital Collections. Authors are also creating for the Oregon Encyclopedia (OE) thirty new entries based on the interviews, and the digital collection records will also link to existing OE entries to provide reliable secondary sources for researchers. By July 2020, all 212 interviews will be digitized, and nearly all of them will be accessible online anywhere in the world. In the coming months, we’ll be updating Dear Oregon readers on our progress as we make huge leaps toward making these important collections accessible.


This project is supported in whole or part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services through the Library Services and Technology Act, administered by the State Library of Oregon.

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