Bookbag: Veterans Oral History Project

April 28, 2014

THE CATALYST: In 2000, Congress passed legislation to create the Veterans History Project. Housed in the Library of Congress, the ongoing collection includes correspondence, audio narratives, and visual materials from veterans of every American war since World War I. Several years ago, Center for Documentary Studies instructor Michelle Lanier and then-visiting professor Elaine Lawless saw an opportunity to contribute to the project at duke. documenting veteran stories always has been very personal for Lanier, an oral historian and folklorist with a family history steeped in military service. “The potential here is to use bearing witness to these stories as a bridge between civilian and military life—as a bridge that calls for more awareness building,” says Lanier.

THE GIST: Students conduct at least one recorded interview with a veteran over the course of the semester, adhering to guidelines and best practices set forth by the Library of Congress. Lanier leverages personal contacts and works with local veterans organizations to arrange for interviews, but also encourages her students to explore any existing ties to the military by reaching out to family members and friends. The class submits its audio recordings to the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center, where they are preserved for scholars, veterans hoping to connect with former comrades, and future generations. “As an archival tool, they help fill the gaps in the written record and sometimes even go against the traditional narrative,” says Lanier.

THE TWIST: Performing an interview is not as simple as setting up the recorder and pressing play. Lanier notes that her students have to learn to “make silence” and allow the veterans complete autonomy in the way they tell their stories, without interjecting to empathize or ask follow-up questions. Lanier has her students perform mock interviews of each other, in which they practice posing delicate questions and experience firsthand how difficult it can be to answer them. “It’s important for them to know what it’s like to be put on the spot,” says Lanier.

ASSIGNMENT LIST: The oral-history method requires significant preparation. Students keep a weekly journal and view documentary films—including Not Yet Begun to Fight by Duke alumna Sabrina Lee ’91—as fodder for class discussion about veterans’ issues. Each student also is responsible for researching the interviewee’s background and the conflict in which they served.

WHAT YOU MISSED: Local Vietnam veteran Stephen Acsai visited the class in February to speak about his wartime experience, his work to dedicate the north Carolina Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Raleigh, and the sense of brotherhood with other veterans he still feels today. Several years ago, Acsai took Lanier’s class through the Center for Documentary Studies’ Continuing Education program and conducted several veteran interviews of his own. He is thrilled to see members of a younger generation engaging more with their nation’s heritage. “I hope they develop a deeper understanding and appreciation
of not just the sacrifices veterans have made, but what their families have gone through," says Acsai.