IU Bicentennial Oral History Project captures the untold stories of campuses across Indiana

In the 1940s, Indiana University Bloomington students spent time with their friends at the Gables or Nick's English Hut.

And if a female student didn't have a date for a dance, the social director of her sorority would call up the social director of a fraternity and ask if there were any available men.

Herban B Wells LibraryView print quality image
The IU Bicentennial Oral History Project started as a way to add student and staff stories to the IU Archives. Indiana University photo

In many cases, those blind dates would lead to marriages, their classmates remembered.

Two decades later, in the '60s, Richmond community members came together to raise money for a new IU campus there. And in the 1990s, IUPUI partnered with community groups to fight systemic inequity.

Stories like these, about IU campus life from decades past, are part of the more than 1,200 interviews in the IU Bicentennial Oral History Project. A portion of the project will be available online on Sept. 27, with a majority of the collection posted by spring.

Now a universitywide effort to collect oral histories, especially voices of those who were likely excluded from university records in the past, it started as a volunteer-run project about 10 years ago.

While the IU Archives is filled with official documents and records, there wasn't as much about the student or the staff experience, said Rafal Swiatkowski, who started as a volunteer before becoming project coordinator in 2017.

"One of our goals is to fill that gap in IU's historical record, focusing on those marginalized voices," he said.

The collection will help anyone interested in the history of IU and will be publicly available.

Once online, each oral history will have a written transcript as well as the audio version. And users will be able to search the text for keywords and then start the audio from that point in the interview.

"The audio and the transcripts go hand in hand," said Jon Cameron, digital media service manager for IU Libraries, who is working on this project. "Having the transcript adds to the experience of listening to that recording, and users can read while experiencing the richness of the audio."

On Friday, Swiatkowski and others will demonstrate the online platform for the project at the 200 Festival Collections Showcase, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Solarium of the Indiana Memorial Union at IU Bloomington.

To conduct the interviews, project staff use one of three sets -- faculty, staff or alumni -- of base questions to start. Each last between 45 to 90 minutes.

"It's really about having a conversation with people: What's their background? How did they come to IU? What was their experience like? What have they done since and what does IU mean to them? For faculty and staff, we have questions about initiatives they were a part of and historical events that happened when they were on campus," Swiatkowski said, adding that the goal is to learn people's personal history and to listen to their story.

And of all the interviews he's done, it's hard to pick the ones that stand out to him most.

In addition to alumni from the 1940s, he enjoyed hearing how the protests around Vietnam, the women's movement and the civil rights movement affected students. Depending on a student's social circles, the events of the '60s and '70s were all-encompassing, or they passed the student by. He also enjoyed listening to how technology affected student life over the decades.

On the regional campuses, it was also interesting to learn about the identities of each campus and the impact those campuses made on their students and the community around them, Swiatkowski said.

The oral history project is still taking interview suggestions, especially for voices not already in the historical record, he added. As the bicentennial comes to a close in June 2020, Swiatkowski said the goal is for the project to go on but will be overseen by IU Archives.

"It's a legacy project. Part of our goal is to create a process so this work can continue going forward."