For 49 years, the University of Nevada Oral History Program has gathered the recollections of Nevadans who were in positions to watch history, from officeholders to secretaries. But during the “great” recession, the program has taken a beating. The most recent director of the program, Alicia Barber, will step down on June 30. During her tenure, she worked to make sure that the work product of the last half century—interviews, photos, recordings—will become easily accessible to the public for the first time at www.unr.edu/oralhistory. The recollections of more than 700 Nevadans are represented there. program’s book on Nevada women athletes, We Were All Athletes, was published in 2011.
Tell me about the program.
The Oral History Program had its roots in 1964. It was founded actually at the Desert Research Institute, which at the time had a program in Western North American studies. And they contacted Mary Ellen Glass, who was just receiving her master’s degree in history from the University of Nevada and asked if she could conduct some interviews for them. So she began conducting interviews in 1965 for their program and interviewed quite a number of people for the first two years or so [on] the earliest years in Nevada that could be recollected personally. So a lot of her interviews were of people in their eighties who’d been born in the 1880s. And it’s quite an incredible record of early Nevada. The program moved to Getchell Library at the University of Nevada in 1969 … and it remained in the library for the next 20 years until about 1989. Tom King had become the director of the program in 1983 and in ’89 he took the program out of the library as an independent program.
The program started having financial problems.
Right. The state legislature was analyzing state expenditures in the 2009 session. And the Oral History Program budget was cut. … So at that point it was unclear if the program could actually survive. But the program was moved administratively under the Department of History and actually entered 2009 with a surplus of funds due to a lot of fund raising. … So a position was cobbled together of director with me directing the program half time on non-state funds. And then I had a full time program coordinator at that time, too.
What did you want to accomplish, and what have you been able to accomplish?
Well, when I became director in 2009, I knew that the funding situation was precarious. … So I really had two priorities. One was to make sure that all the material was physically preserved. The program, like many other oral history programs, had used cassette tapes [until] sometime in the 1990s and cassette tapes deteriorate. We wanted to make sure the audio recordings would be safe and the program had already embarked upon a digitizing project, to convert all the cassette tapes to digital, so I continued that. We secured funds from, actually a federal grant that came thorough the Nevada State Library and Archives … and secured funds for equipment and hiring students to do that kind of work. … And the second was making sure that the materials could be made available to as broad an audience as possible. And I decided I really wanted to be able to offer the published transcripts and books and videos on line for free. … So I began working right away with the staff of the Special Collections Department at the UNR library. … and have really tailored an incredibly user-friendly, wonderfully specialized website to offer all of the transcripts as free downloadable searchable PDF.