Veterans History Project Launched
David Darlington, May 2002
From the News column of the May 2002 Perspectives
The Library of Congress American Folklife Center has announced the creation of the Veterans History Project (VHP). Created by the U.S. Congress in October 2000 and sponsored by the AARP and the Disabled American Veterans Charitable Service Trust, the Veterans History Project seeks to collect and preserve the memories of the 19 million war veterans living in the United States today. It will include all participants in America's 20th-century wars—World War I, World War II, and the Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf Wars—documenting the contributions of civilian volunteers, support staff, and war industry workers as well as the experiences of military personnel from all ranks and branches of the service. Because many of America's veterans are senior citizens—1,500 veterans pass away daily—the VHP gives the highest priority to the recording of the histories of the oldest veterans.
The mission statement of the Veterans History Project is to collect the memories, accounts, and documents of American war veterans, and to preserve these stories of experience and service for future generations. Sarah Rouse, program officer for the VHP, described the project's strength: "It is a broad-scoped project, spanning five 20th-century wars, includes all ranks and every branch of service in every state, and covers the home front as well as the battlefront. It certainly will complement the library's own collections by providing a cross section of wartime experience as seen from the point of view of the ordinary person, the common man and woman, . . . thus nicely dovetailing with the Library of Congress's renowned collections representing notable military leaders and statesmen." The VHP has developed a set of five goals it intends to achieve. First, it seeks to stimulate opportunities for public learning by inviting, advising, and supporting individuals to participate in the collection of oral histories. Second, the project seeks to engage public organizations as partners to identify, interview, and collect documents from war veterans and those who served in support of them. Third, the VHP seeks to preserve and present the collected materials to the public, through Library of Congress exhibitions, publications, public programs, and web site. Fourth, the VHP seeks to identify other veterans oral history programs and archives, and to work with those programs to expand the scope of the project. And, fifth, the project seeks to create a comprehensive, searchable, national catalog of all oral histories and documents collected as a result of the project.
The heart of the VHP is the oral interview. Based on a sampling of results provided by about half of the project partners, Rouse estimates that over 2,500 veterans have been interviewed already. To assist in the collection of video and audio interviews of veterans, the project staff developed a comprehensive project instruction kit, which includes a 31-page booklet, Helpful Guidelines for Conducting and Preserving Interviews and Other Project Materials. Project participants are instructed on how to properly conduct an interview; record biographical information about their interview subject; identify and log photographs, manuscripts, or other personal effects; and properly transcribe and index veteran interviews. Furthermore, the booklet provides some sample questions for the novice historian to get started on the interview, which is to be no more than 90 minutes in length. Interviewers are instructed not to rely too heavily on these sample questions, however, so that each veteran's story gets told in its own way. Rouse commented that most of the interviews received have been properly recorded according to the formal guidelines and questions provided after vetting by oral historians and folklorists. The project is also providing professional training to interviewers though the Oral History Association and the American Folklore Society, and it consults regularly with historians to improve the collections and to make them useful for scholars and future researchers.
Acquiring oral histories of all surviving veterans in America is a monumental task. To complete this task, the VHP has called for public participation in one of three capacities: as a volunteer, as a youth partner, or as a partner. Volunteers are the pillars of the program. They are the individuals who, whether veterans themselves, family members, students, historians, or interested citizens, actually interview war veterans and transcribe their recordings, or identify documents to donate to the project. They are, in essence, the VHP's fieldworkers who do the historical "grunt work" or assist others in their research efforts. In explaining the rationale behind the project's reliance on volunteers, Rouse said, "Congress wanted the project to be 'process' as well as 'product'—the process of intergenerational dialogue about citizens' wartime experience, about a meeting between various communities such as the military veteran community and the historian—professional and amateur—community, and about the process of public learning about wartime, veterans, and historical methodology in a way that people of all ages and interest could become involved. The professional historians are doing a fine job of interviewing veterans and home front supporters in many academic and community-based veterans history projects, and it was felt that ordinary citizens with curiosity and desire to take action could be well served by having an entree into the rewarding task of recording history."
Youth partners are those middle and secondary school students and teachers who arrange to interview veterans and record their histories as a group or class project. By following the guidelines established in the VHP guidebook, students learn good research and interviewing techniques, which may serve them well in careers as historians or journalists. The VHP believes that the activities of youth partners may also add a powerful boost to history education, with young people learning history from those who lived it.
Those in the third support category of partners are also a key component of the VHP. Partners help recruit and train volunteers, locate and identify veteran and civilian interview subjects, generate publicity, and donate funds or equipment. On Veterans' Day 2001, the VHP released its first official list of partners. This list of 100 names, included civic organizations, veterans groups, academic institutions, and government agencies. The AHA is an official VHP Partner. As of April 2002, the number of partners has more than doubled, and now totals over 200 organizations. In addition, the project has enlisted an advisory group of political and military leaders, prominent veterans, historians, and others, who constitute its "Five-Star Council." Notables on the council include prominent veterans Senator John Kerry and former Senator Bob Dole, and historian Stephen Ambrose.
The project's web site, http://www.loc.gov/folklife/vets, is the official web resource for information about the project. The web site features sample audio and video from interviews of veterans, providing a brief glimpse of the contents of the project's collection. Here, historians can also download interview forms, including the aforementioned instruction kit, should they wish to conduct an interview personally or lead a classroom oral history project. The web site also features press releases announcing new partners for the VHP or special calls for research. For example, during Women's History Month, a special call went out to women veterans, stating, "there is no more fitting time to honor our women veterans and those women who served and supported our armed forces on the home front." A similar call went out during African American History Month in February 2002.
The VHP has made considerable progress since its founding. Several World War I veterans have been interviewed. Retirement communities and VFW units have come forward to provide tapes to the library. Many individuals have sent tapes, letters, diaries, and photographs. Sadly, several interviewees have passed away already, highlighting the urgency that exists in many cases. The AHA is proud to be on the list of official Partners of the Veterans History Project. For more information, the VHP can be contacted at its web site, by phone at (202) 707-4916, or by regular mail to the Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, 101 Independence Ave., SE, Washington, DC 20540-4615.
David Darlington is assistant editor of Perspectives.