Oral history institute honored for excellence

From left, senior editor Elinor Mazé, director Dr. Stephen Sloan, and associate director Lois Myers of the Institute for Oral History, which was recently awarded the Texas Historical Commission’s 2011 Award of Excellence in Preserving History.
Jed Dean | Lariat Photo Editor

By Jade Mardirosian
Staff Writer

Baylor’s Institute for Oral History has been awarded the Texas Historical Commission’s 2011 Award of Excellence in Preserving History.

The institute records historically significant stories from individuals, which are then transcribed and preserved. The institute works on a wide range of topics including World War II and personal stories of faith journeys during the time of widespread lynching in America. The institute also holds workshops in oral history techniques.

“We have been doing this for 40 years and have more than 5,000 interviews now,” Lois Myers, associate director of the institute, said. “The biggest majority of the interviews are a project we call religion and culture. Under that big umbrella are interviews on the church and civil rights, women in ministry, Catholics and the Vatican. That’s really Baylor’s unique contribution in the overall field of oral history. We are leaders in the national Oral History Association.”

Elinor Mazé, senior editor at the institute, describes the significance in preserving history first-hand from eyewitnesses.

“[Oral history] is sometimes called history from the ground up and that implies that ordinary people like us are the people through whom history is lived, created,” Mazé said. “History that is written is of dates and treaties and so on, but that doesn’t tell the story of life as you know it. People say it’s history of the ordinary person, but what you learn when you do this is that there are no ordinary people. Everyone has some part of an extraordinary story to tell.”

William McWhorter, coordinator for military sites and oral history program for the Texas Historical Commission, nominated Baylor’s Institute for Oral History.

According to the Texas Historical Commission, the award honors an individual, organization or project that has significantly contributed to the understanding or preservation of Texas history. It recognizes achievements in preservation planning, historic site identification, preservation of significant archival or artifact collections or research that leads to a greater understanding of state or local history.

“We want to make sure we are doing significant work in our home state, so it is nice to be recognized for that,” Dr. Stephen Sloan, director of the institute, said. “What we do is work with other people to tell their stories in a way that is useful to others. The stories we gather are going to live here forever.”

Transcripts of interviews are deposited into The Texas Collection, a special collections library on campus. A PDF version is also uploaded to Baylor’s Web-based digital library portal, allowing researchers the opportunity to access the materials.

Myers said oral history shows more than what is usually portrayed to readers through other methods.

“It complicates history with these individual experiences and we are less able to stereotype people,” Myers said. “We are particularly interested in getting the oral history of those people who aren’t leaving a record, who are what we call historically invisible. To include their story complicates the picture and then also makes it closer to what real people experience through time.”