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At Home Archive Challenge: Exploring VHP Collections

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A color photograph of researchers using VHP collections in the reading room.
Researchers examine VHP collections in the AFC reading room. Photo taken by VHP staff, 2014.

Hello to potential explorers of the Veterans History Project (VHP) archive! We’re so excited that you’re considering taking part in the American Folklife Center’s newest version of the Archive Challenge. VHP’s collections are nothing if not inspirational, and you are sure to find a wealth of material–everything from epic poems to wartime love letters and deeply moving diary entries–to interpret in your artistic creations.

As the Archive Challenge kicks off, we wanted to provide a few signposts to point the way as you dig through our material. To set the scene, it’s important to keep in mind what types of items you might find in the VHP archive. VHP collects and preserves the firsthand interviews and narratives of United States military veterans who served from World War I through the present. In addition to audio- and video-recorded oral history interviews, VHP accepts memoirs and collections of original photographs, letters, diaries, artwork and other historical documents. Since VHP was created by Congress in 2000, we have archived the narratives of over 111,000 individual veterans.

111,000 collections is a LOT of material, particularly given that a single collection might contain anything from an oral history interview to hundreds of letters or photographs. For a variety of reasons, not all of our collection material is viewable online, but nearly 70% of it–over 75,000 collections–has some digitized component that is accessible via our website.

Screenshot of the VHP online database.
Screenshot of the VHP online database search interface.

The VHP online database is your starting point, the gateway to all of our digitized content. You can use it to search by any number of criteria relating to a veteran’s service history information (such as a veteran’s service branch, location, or unit) or by the material housed within the collection (be it an oral history interview, photographs, or manuscript material). This video tutorial shows you the ins and outs of searching the online database, and we definitely recommend viewing it before you get started.

In addition to using the online database to mine our collections, we have a few other tools that might help you unearth some gems. Every year, we release three or four online exhibits under the title Experiencing War. These online exhibits, what we call web features, are curated sets of collections focused on a particular theme. To date, we’ve released seventy of these web features, focusing on topics ranging from military medicine to the stories of submariners, collections of letters and of snapshot photographs, and narratives from veterans who took part in the Aleutian Island campaign.

Screenshot of the VHP online exhibit "The Art of War."
Screenshot of VHP’s online exhibit “The Art of War,” featuring visual art contributed by veterans.

All of our web features are chock full of intriguing stories, but you might be particularly interested in the following exhibits:

In addition to our online exhibits, sifting through our blog posts is a fantastic way to get acquainted with VHP collection material and our many archival treasures. Since 2013, we’ve published over 200 blog posts on Folklife Today and they are jam-packed with captivating content. Pro tip: here’s a wonderful blog post written by my colleague Kerry Ward that specifically focuses on poems and poetry in VHP collections.

Speaking of poetry, perhaps you’re thinking of taking your cue from one of the poems in VHP’s collections. Due to the way we describe our collections and the structure of our database, it can be a little tricky to search for individual poems via our online database. To make it a little easier, below are links to a handful of individual collections containing poetry.

Our poetry holdings certainly are not limited to this list, and uncovering other possibilities is highly encouraged! As you may discover, many collections have poetry embedded within other formats, such as memoirs, diaries, or letters. For example, Robert Barnes War included this sweet Valentine’s Day poem in a V-mail he sent to his wife during World War II.

Of course, inspiration can be found in all formats of materials, not just poetry. Based on the collection of Irving Greenwald, a WWI veteran, Douglas Taurel’s 2017 solo play offers a moving example of the creative interpretation of a VHP diary collection.

Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions about exploring the VHP collections. Our reference staff would love to help; you can reach us at [email protected]. We can’t wait to see what you come up with!

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