For many years, WKU history students have been assigned the task of finding some history in their own back yard–that is, to interview a Kentuckian about his or her life, create a record of the interview, and write a summary paper about the experience. A large collection of these oral history projects, consisting typically of an interview recorded on cassette tape, a complete or partial transcript, a paper and sometimes a photo, is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Special Collections Library.
The interviews open a window for students onto the early lives of their parents, grandparents, friends and acquaintances, many of whom grew up poor or in rural areas, saw military service in World War II, Korea or Vietnam, worked on farms and in coal mines, taught school, and endured the Depression, segregation and the struggle for civil rights. But the projects also acquaint students with the craft of interviewing and the challenge of eliciting a compelling oral history. They often comment on the difficulty of drawing out a taciturn subject, unwilling to talk about poverty and war, or simply puzzled at why anyone would be interested in such an “ordinary” life. “Some things,” like the loss of his wife, “were too painful to discuss,” wrote one student of her grandfather. And: “Although he didn’t mention this in the interview, I know that his hearing was forever damaged due to his role as a gunner in the Navy.”
But once the students have gotten their interviewee to “open up,” they achieve a new appreciation of history as experienced by those around them. Wrote another student of his 86-year-old subject: “A person listening may think that Bessie and people like her are ignorant. That would be a mistake. I believe Bessie is one of the smartest people I know. She knew things about . . . surviving hard times that many more ‘informed’ people would be ignorant of in her world.”