The Oregon Historical Society’s Oral History Librarian, Sarah Stroman, recently described in her June 2019 blog post, “Digitizing the Oregon Story: Exciting New Oral History Projects at OHS,” an ambitious project she began this summer to make available 212 digitized interviews from the OHS Research Library collections. As part of that grant-funded project, we joined the OHS staff in July 2019 to index some of those oral histories. Indexing is the process of identifying major topics discussed in recorded interviews and providing listeners the approximate point in the recording where they are discussed. We were both excited to begin working on the project, because digitizing and indexing these recordings make them more accessible to the public. Once digitized, the oral histories will be available online and their major topics will be searchable through the indexes.
After completing indexes for the first round of interviews documenting the lives of Irvin Luiten, a lobbyist for Weyerhaeuser Company, and Betty Roberts, an Oregon legislator and judge, we sat down to discuss our thoughts on the process so far. The following are a few excerpts from our conversation.
Some of Our Favorite Stories
Sara: Sections of Irvin Luiten’s interview include his recollections about the time he spent in the Military Intelligence Service during World War II — his work sounded as though it came straight out of a movie. One of his tasks was to interview service members who had escaped and evaded capture. He compiled stories of survival into training reports for other service members to read before deployment. In the oral history, he also talks about aviators submerging themselves in water and breathing through reeds as they hid. Another memorable story from the interview was of a fighter pilot who was shot down and taken in by a French family. When German officials commandeered the family’s house, the pilot pretended he was the family’s deaf son to avoid discovery.
Cynthia: There is a wealth of information in Betty Roberts’ oral history documenting her experiences as a woman in Oregon politics during the 1960s and 1970s. Roberts made history as the first woman judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and later on the Oregon Supreme Court. My favorite sections were about Roberts’ experiences as one of the few women in the Oregon legislature: the way her path unfolded from studying political science at Portland State College, to running for her first elected office on the Lents School Board, to how she handled the disappointment of being refused admission to the doctoral program in political science at the University of Oregon due to her age and gender. Her descriptions of strategy and power plays by Democrats and Republicans in the Oregon legislature were eye-opening. She shared her growing awareness of the structural discrimination affecting women and her work to combat it.
Indexing is a Treasure Map that Provides Access
Cynthia: I think of a good index as a treasure map. When creating an oral history index, my goal is to give users enough information to lead them to the primary topics discussed, while at the same time encouraging them to engage with the “gold” — the actual recording or transcript, if available.
Sara: Yes, a treasure map is a great way to think of indexing. Luiten, for example, was a lobbyist for Weyerhaeuser, so there is a depth of information and perspective on topics you might expect — forestry management practices, conservation issues, and Weyerhaeuser company history — as well as some unexpected topics. There are rich details in his accounts of various periods in his life. In the oral history recording, he recounted stories of resilience during the Great Depression and an unsettling account from his childhood when the Ku Klux Klan brought anti-Catholic sentiments to his hometown. Luiten also provided a firsthand account of watching the rapids at Kettle Falls disappear over the course of a few days after the Grand Coulee Dam filled Lake Roosevelt. There is a lot a researcher can glean from these perspectives and stories — much that one may miss without an index.
Echoes in the Present
Cynthia: Every time I engage with an oral history recording, I am struck by the vibrant details brought to life and the layers of expression and feeling contained in an oral narration.
Sara: Your comment about “layers of expression and feeling” in oral histories made me think of a moment during Luiten’s interview that I recall recognizing the passion in his voice. Somewhat out of the blue, but on multiple occasions, Luiten returned to the topic of respecting national heroes, rather than dwelling on the “frailties” of those prominent figures. His urgency intrigued me, and I later came to understand the context for it. During the interview, Luiten mentioned Sen. John Tower, who President George H.W. Bush nominated in 1989 to become Secretary of Defense (the same year as Luiten’s interview). A last minute reopening of Tower’s FBI background check focused on concerns about alcohol abuse earlier in his career, which ultimately cost him the nomination. It was interesting to hear Luiten’s perspective from 1989, and it brought to mind current national conversations regarding contentious confirmations for high-ranking federal appointments.
Cynthia: One story Betty Roberts shared that surprised me was the 1971 Democrat walkout in the Oregon Senate over the ratification of an amendment to change voting age from 21 to 18, which Senate President John D. Burns (a Democrat) did not want to pass. The Democrats scattered all over Salem and Roberts commented that she played a lot of poker while they were waiting it out. Burns called the state police, and a phone negotiation between Burns and Ways and Means Chair, Berkeley Lent, resolved the blockage, and the legislators returned for a vote on the issue. Anyone who followed the news this year will recall the May 2019 Republican State Senate walkout, where Gov. Kate Brown sent the state police to look for them. Until listening to this oral history, I had thought the 2019 walkout was unprecedented. After doing a bit more research, I found out the 2019 walkout was the fifth one in Oregon’s history. There are also other details in Roberts’ story that are quite intriguing, particularly regarding how a Democratic senate president ended up being at odds with the senate Democrats, but you’ll have to check out the oral history for the full scoop.
We hope this glimpse into recent oral history indexing projects will pique interest in the wealth of Oregon history held in each recording held at the OHS Research Library. Explore the library catalog and digital collections for all the library has to offer, and stay tuned as we work to digitize more of its “gold.”
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