By Chase Rheam
STILLWATER, Okla. —
A group of Oklahoma State University faculty members are turning on the camera and audio recorder and allowing select people to share their stories for research and preservation.
The Oklahoma Oral History Research Program at OSU contains three tenure-track faculty members, one visiting assistant professor and two students in capturing the stories. Mary Larson, the head of the program, said oral history has advantages over written history.
“The problem with written history is that it focuses on prominent individuals to the exclusion of the vast majority of people who were involved in shaping history,” she said. “Oral history lets us cover those gaps. It lets us talk to everyday people and find out what their involvement was in either certain movements or certain historical moments.”
Larson said oral history can cover groups who didn’t have a voice previously such as women, ethnic groups and varying professions.
Larson has been a part of the program for more than three years, but has experience in oral histories since 1990 when she attended the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and the University of Nevada-Reno.
“Our official mission is to document the history of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University and make all that material accessible to the public,” she said.
To do this, the group does a lot of outreach.
“Beyond doing interviews and so on around the state, we do workshops around the state so people can be doing their own interviews,” she said. “The idea of starting this program, I think, had to do with filling in those gaps from a research perspective, but also making material available that would be interesting for general researchers or genealogy or teachers.”
When searching for interviews, the program takes recommendations through an online form.
“There are so many interesting stories in any one place and Oklahoma is particularly good with interesting stories,” she said.
Larson said the program will develop a theme and attempt to find interviewees that fit it. She said she has heard many good interviews, including a woman who recalled hard times as a young girl.
“She was probably 6 or 7 and her mother was a teacher in Oklahoma,” Larson said. “And this was back in the day where they were giving promissory notes, basically, for pay for the teachers. Her mother was the sole provider for the family. ... She had to make due without having a paycheck.”
The woman described her mother’s search for someone who could take the note around Christmas.
“They went over to Missouri and they had heard of someone there who may cash it,” Larson said. “And they went to this store and the mother told this girl, she said, ‘Now, whatever happens, don’t cry. We’re going to hold our heads up whatever happens. And if we need to cry, we’ll do it when we get back out to the car.’”
They entered the store and the man agreed to give them money.
“They came out and the mother said, ‘Now, we can have Christmas,’” Larson said.
Larson said most people who are approached are willing, but not sure why Larson and the group want to hear their story.
The program has conducted interviews with approximately 600 people in the last five years, she said.
The process can take up to two hours and the interviewers may return a few more times to get more of the subject’s story. The team edits the video and transcribes the audio multiple times, including a fact check with those interviewed, before it is published. All of the material is online and available for the public to view.
Larson said she and the group continue to find amazing stories and themes with which to work.
“I had a friend when I was growing up that said, ‘If you talk long enough to anyone, you’ll find that they have an amazing story,’” Larson said. “And I think that’s really true.”
For more information or to search through interviews, visit www.library.okstate.edu/oralhistory.