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    SPECIAL COLLECTIONS:  Oral Histories in the Valley
    by Johlene Hess, co-editor

    Did you know that JMU Libraries has a substantial and growing collection of oral histories?  One way that JMU Libraries’ Special Collections is growing its collection is through its Oral History Internship.  The internship has been offered since the mid-1980's as an independent study class for three credits, in connection with the History department.

    Oral history refers to the process of recording eyewitness accounts of historical events. It can be an important tool for documenting personal experiences or histories that often contain information overlooked by typical historical sources like newspapers, books, or magazines.  Efforts at recording oral histories go beyond systematically and accurately documenting what is said, but also entail specific legal, ethical, and methodological responsibilities. 

    The Oral History Intern is introduced to the broad range of issues in the methodology of oral documentation.  The intern may select a project or work on one that has been assigned by the Special Collections Librarian.  These projects are structured to include a short background research paper that defines the historical context of the topic, a minimum of two interviewees to gain different perspectives, extensive preparation of interview questions, and transcription of all tapes.  One requirement for Special Collections’ oral histories is that they must pertain to the geographical area contained within the four central Shenandoah Valley counties of Page, Shenandoah, Rockingham, and Augusta.  The subjects are wide and varied.  The completed project becomes part of the Library's permanent collection. 

    To locate the oral histories available in Special Collections, type the series title James Madison University sound archives into LEO's Title search.  Most collections have a print transcript in the circulating stacks, although these are constantly disappearing (and being replaced with copies from the archival original).  Some highlights from the oral histories collection include: 

    §         An interview with Mr. Ernest M. Dickerman, retired wildlife conservationist and lobbyist for the Wilderness Society.  This oral history includes information about the founding of the Wilderness Society and the extensive work of Virginia citizens to have certain areas in the national forest designated by Congress as wilderness. 

    §         Several histories explore the Tanbark industry in the Shenandoah Valley.  Logging and bark peeling were once predominant industries in the region; tannin found in the bark of chestnut oaks and hemlocks was used in leather processing.

    §         A set of oral histories entitled New Cultural Pluralism: Study of Immigrants to the Shenandoah Valley contains interviews with Hispanic, Ukrainian and Vietnamese families who have moved to the region in recent years.  It also documents the work of the Virginia Council of Churches Refugee Resettlement Program in bringing immigrants to the area and assisting in their settlement by providing interpreters, instruction in English as a second language, and providing help in finding employment.

    §         Recollections of Karl Baumann, a German prisoner of war during World War II who was interned in the United States at Camp 8, Lyndhurst/Sherando Lake, Va. from April through November 1945.  He was befriended by a local farmer, Galen Heatwole, who later sponsored Baumann’s return to the U.S.

    §         James Madison University: a Social History of Student Life documents the changes in student life and in the university as it has grown from the State Normal School for Women to its current form.

    The oldest oral histories in the collection are of African-Americans in Harrisonburg.  Collected by Inez Ramsey, retired JMU professor, who obtained a grant in the late 1970's for these histories.  After much lobbying by the Special Collections Librarian, she later donated them to special collections, although without the legal releases, which took a year of tracking descendants to obtain.  One interviewee, Mrs. Willie Nickens (b. 1895) related memories about Lucy Simms, a well-known black educator in Harrisonburg.  An African-American high school in Harrisonburg that was built in 1939 was named in her honor.

    Looking toward the centennial in 2008, a new program on JMU histories has begun.  Chris Bolgiano, Special Collections Librarian recently taught an oral history workshop to JMU faculty and staff who will be doing histories for the centennial.  See The Burruss Historical Research Grants in Shenandoah History and JMU Institutional History for more information. 


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