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~ By Erin Doherty – Student Communications Assistant

26,000 cubic feet of paper and published material. 2.5 million photographs. Over 1,400 oral histories. 4,500 films and videos. 8,500 audio recordings. This is the multitude of valuable resources and materials that can be found at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives. October is Archives Month, which means it’s time to celebrate and learn more about one of the most indispensable resources on campus.

The Archives, which was founded in 1951, is a repository not only for the university, but for the UW System Administration, UW Extension and the UW Colleges. It’s unique in that it contains records specifically related to UW campus history. Truly an oasis of information, it serves as an enormously helpful tool for students and faculty working on research projects or just trying to find out more about the university.

Oral History Program

One of the most valuable and fascinating parts of the Archives is the Oral History Program, home to over 1,400 interviews. Compiled mostly during the second half of the 20th century and weaved through important historical events such as the Great Depression, the aftermath of World War II, and the protests against the Vietnam War, the collection is currently headed by campus oral historian Troy Reeves. Reeves was kind enough to share with us some information about both himself and the program.

Troy Reeves, UW-Madison Oral Historian
Troy Reeves, UW-Madison Oral Historian

How long have you been with the Libraries and how did you get your start?

June 2007, I was hired to head the oral history program, which is part of UW-Madison Archives. I got my start, I guess, about 17 years before that when taking a U.S. History Class. I could talk more about it, but I wrote an article about it for the Oral History Review about my start in oral history. And since I’m currently the managing editor of the OHR, I feel contractually obligated to point you to it.

What’s the most interesting part of your job?

For some reason, I feel uneasy saying this, but here it goes: Almost all of my job is interesting. With some minor exceptions, it rarely feels like work.

If you pressed me for a more definitive answer, I would say I like meeting with prospective narrators before the actual oral history recording, or what we oral historians have dubbed, the pre-interview. It’s a great way to get to know the person, allow them to ask questions of you, and explain to them the process of contributing to our oral history collection. All without worrying about making sure the digital audio recorder is placed correctly and recording well.

How do you see your role evolving?

In one sense, my job has always been evolving. Since I started as a professional oral historian (from 1999-2006, I was Idaho’s Oral Historian), the technology has changed greatly and continues to change. Digital recorders, new audio editing software, not to mention the internet in general has made it important to try to keep up with these, for oral history at least, seismic changes.

But in another sense, my job hasn’t (and won’t) change. At its core, oral history is the connection between the interviewer and the narrator that if done well will lead to a primary source that can educate, inform, and, maybe, affect change. And that relationship hasn’t changed in the 16 years I’ve been an oral historian, it was the same for my predecessors, and I have to think it will be the same for the foreseeable future.

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2014 Oral History Association Conference, “Uncivil Disobedience” performance.

Is there a particular collection or project you’ve work with that you are most interested in?

Well, almost since I got here in 2007, I’ve been interested in the student activism. For the most part, that interest has been focused in the Vietnam Era on our campus. It culminated in two web presentations (1970 TAA Strike and the Sterling Hall Bombing) and a documentary theater piece, called “Uncivil Disobedience.” For “Uncivil” the playwright, Mike Lawler, used oral histories, stories, and documents from our Archives (along with documents from the Wisconsin Historical Society and other archives) to write a play about the Sterling Hall Bombing where the actors portrayed actual people and all the dialogue came from the historic record.

But in the last year, I have tried to branch out and interview people involved in student activism in the times before and after Vietnam. It has not progressed too quickly, but I hope to do more to create a more in depth history student activism. And I’m also interested in student activists who do not fit the anti-war mold, meaning those who might have protested the protesters.

Sterling Hall Bombing, image 2_S02791, UW-Madison Archives
Sterling Hall Bombing, image 2_S02791, UW-Madison Archives

What is your favorite experience working at Archives/OHP?

For one of these memories, favorite is not the right word. My most memorable moment was interviewing two of the five survivors of the Sterling Hall Bombing. Having researched the event through the documents and photos, interviewing Roger Whitmer and David Schuster–who were both inside Sterling Hall on the morning of 8/24/1970 when the bomb exploded–made the event’s history even more compelling to me. And reminded me why I really love what I do.

My other memory (and favorite describes this memory perfectly) was when my boss, David Null, told me I should go talk to someone who he was helping in our Archives. “He, too, is from Idaho,” David said. Well, Idaho is a big state (geographically), so I was not expecting much. But as fate would have it, the man’s father went to my high school (about 20 years before me but still) and his grandfather worked in the Arco desert near where both of my parents grew up. That day it was indeed a small world.

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Troy reviews materials to discuss during an oral history interview.

What’s your favorite thing about the libraries?

I just finished reading Oral History and Digital Humanities, a volume of edited chapters where several of my most valued colleagues contributed a piece. In it, one of the authors quoted from a book about what technology has done to learning. It has turned many of us, he compared, from scuba divers to jet skiers in regards to how we learn. By this he meant the internet has led us to click along the surface of many websites instead of taking the time or having the patience to delve deep into a subject.

What I like about the libraries (and archives) then is they are places (and really it is the people who work inside them) where one can be reminded, if he/she will take a moment, the benefits of becoming knowledgeable about something or someone.

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2014 “Uncivil Disobedience” performance.

Time to get out of the office. What’s your favorite thing to do in Madison?

I like the simple things (read free) about Madison. So, my favorite times are walking around with my wife and kids (when they deign to join us) around our neighborhood in Madison’s west side. We have several small ponds within walking distance, and there is always something to see. I also enjoy walking around our local farmers’ market on Saturday and seeing what the vendors have brought to market that day. (Technically, this event is free, but I do buy, usually vegetables and scones, from some of the vendors to help the local economy.)

So, those are April to October things. The rest of the year I wait, somewhat patiently, for April, usually with a crossword puzzle (and a cup of matte) in my hands.

Nobody would ever guess that one time I…?

In my previous professional job, a blog that featured Idaho’s politics and culture named me one of the 100 most influential Idahoans for that year. (I was 98th.) And I was once on a prime time game show and won some money.

And I’ve always want to be a lounge singer; my act would focus on 1970s/1980s TV theme songs. This last thing never will happen, because besides my daughter, who is a budding young actress, the rest of the Reeves family all think we are talented, but we would never go up on stage to confirm or deny it.