“The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the Veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.”
— George Washington
The Veterans History Project honors the lives and service of all American veterans –not only the warriors but all who have served their country, “From the motor pool to the mess hall,” as director Robert Patrick puts it. VHP collects, preserves and makes available the stories and memorabilia of American veterans so that future generations may better understand the realities of military life and of war. To date, VHP has collected items from over 98,000 veterans, about 15% of which is available online.
The items from each woman or man are considered to be one unique “collection.” Many of the collections include first-person accounts of the veteran’s experience. And that is where great power resides, in a person recounting his or her memories. Whereas a writer of history constructs a narrative out of facts, a witness to history can say, “I was there. This is what I saw, what I experienced and what I felt.”
Congress enacted the Veterans History Project 15 years ago today, on October 27, 2000, as part of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. The authorizing legislation was sponsored by Representatives Ron Kind, Amo Houghton, and Steny Hoyer from the U.S. House of Representatives and Senators Max Cleland and Chuck Hagel from the U.S. Senate.
“After hearing veterans in my family share their stories, I wanted to find a way to preserve all veterans’ stories for researchers, historians, educators, and most importantly future generations,” said Congressman Kind.
Peter Bartis, folklife specialist in the American Folklife Center and the author of the comprehensive guide, Folklife and Fieldwork, was deeply involved in the foundation of the Project. “Members of Congress got deeply engaged with the Veterans History Project and it was a good opportunity for the Library to demonstrate what it could do for the general public, not just for scholars,” said Bartis.
Oral histories — written, audio and video — enrich the collections. But there are challenges in every step of the recorded oral-history process, from the interview to posting the file on the web page. “Most veterans are reticent,” said Monica Mohindra, section head of programming coordination and communications for VHP “They are not necessarily going to come forward and volunteer to tell people how heroic and awesome they are.”
It falls on a loved one, friend or volunteer to encourage the veteran to sit and talk about themselves and their experiences, to open up, often to relive and articulate traumatic memories. Some veterans believe their experiences are just not important enough to talk about, let alone capture for posterity, so they need coaxing and assurance. Recording the oral history requires an advocate for the veteran, someone to pull it together.
When an advocate is ready to interview a veteran, VHP has plenty of “how to” resources, which they distilled from the American Folklife Center’s decades of oral history best practices into a field kit: cover letter, biographical data form, veterans release form, interviewer’s release form, audio and video recording log, photograph log, and manuscript data sheet.
These materials alone were sufficient for the days of audio cassette and videocassette tapes (which VHP acquired plenty of and still digitizes) but moving into the digital age, the project field kit also includes information on media and formats standards. Additional resources, such as Oral History in the Digital Age, delve deeper into the digital recording equipment and in best production practices, such as three-point lighting for video and the basics of digital audio recording.
Part of the value of digital files is that they can be shared online almost instantly. But curating them can be challenging. “I’ve been reviewing the tens of thousands of optical disks we’ve received since the project started,” said VHP archivist Andrew Cassidy-Amstutz. “Taking the content off before the disk has a chance to fail — in some cases it has failed, unfortunately — but extracting as much of the content off each disk as fast as I can and then uploading it to the Library’s content transfer system.” (The Signal interviewed Cassidy-Amstutz in March 2014 about digital preservation in VHP.)
VHP offers advice on how to prepare for the interview and how to conduct the interview, advice that covers the production elements of recording as well as the professional elements of how to be a good interviewer and listener. The rest is up to the openness and receptivity between interviewer and interviewee.
Once the interview is submitted to the VHP, it is marked for digitization (if it is not already digital), tagged with metadata and eventually archived in the Library of Congress’s digital repository for long-term preservation. “We generally receive about 5,000 collections per year,” said Cassidy-Amstutz. “Maybe 300 to 400 per month. That includes anything from new collections to new content arriving to be added to existing collections…We go through cycles of rapid acquisition, especially at the end of semesters when educators — who assigned the project to their students — have the chance to assemble it all together and send it out to us.”Adapting to the times and technology, VHP is working toward creating an online submission process for uploading digital files directly into their system. There may be an app eventually. The project could benefit from crowdsourcing the transcription of the hundreds of thousands of digitized letters and cards, which would contribute enormous value to their keyword search for researchers once the transcriptions are indexed. VHP is also collaborating with the Oral History Association to develop a pamphlet titled Doing Veterans Oral History.
VHP continues to reach out to veterans, including the steady stream of new veterans. And there will always be new veterans. “We can keep growing the project,” said Congressman Kind. “I urge everyone to ask veterans they know to record their stories. This is the last ask of a grateful nation to our veterans. What better way to preserve this important history of what it was like to protect our nation while honoring our veterans at the same time.”