Oral History Center students explore the past, build skills for the future

portrait of Maggie Deng
Student Maggie Deng works at the Oral History Center as a student lead helping with transcripts of interviews. (Photo by Jami Smith/UC Berkeley Library)

There’s more than one side to every story. And at The Bancroft Library’s Oral History Center, there are thousands.

This fall, the OHC will publish videos and audio from more than 250 interviews on Rosie the Riveter and the World War II home front. Under the hood of the colossal project — as with all of the OHC’s undertakings — are undergraduate students who are taught not just how to stitch together an interview, but to build a story.

“What I’ve taken away is an appreciation for different voices,” says Maggie Deng ’19, who started working at the OHC as a freshman. “In history classes I’d always ask, ‘OK, this happened, but what did people at that time think?’ That’s what makes oral histories special; you’re getting that first-person, real — biased or not — perspective of people who lived through those events.”

The OHC employs about a dozen of the nearly 600 students who work for the Library. As the OHC revamps its online presence, students have been at the heart of the process. They help produce a podcast, craft the center’s social media presence, and digitize audio trapped in cassettes.

Essentially, it’s students who help make the center’s work accessible.

“The heart of what we do and are funded to do is to create the interviews, and leave them for the world to have,” says David Dunham, technology lead for the OHC. “A number of years ago, we got all the transcripts online, and that’s great — they’re there. But how do people find them?”

Students are also trained in the editorial side of production. They review transcripts, draft section summaries, and research topics for interviewers. For Dunham, the goal is to leave students with a passion for oral histories and skills they can take with them wherever they go.

“We learn from them, and they learn from us,” he says.