Department of Follow-Through: “Digitizing the Oregon Story”


By Adair Law

In late spring 2019, the USDCHS was delighted to learn of the Oregon Historical Society’s receipt of a generous Library Services and Technology Act grant, funded through the State Library of Oregon’s Library Support and Development Services. The full title of the grant request “Digitizing the Oregon Story: Creating Access to Significant Legal and Political Oral Histories” gives the broad brushstrokes of what they wanted to accomplish. Starting on July 1 2019, OHS set to the task of digitizing 1825 hours of now obsolescent recording format to preserve information from 215 oral history interviews. Of those oral histories, over 60 came from the USDCHS Oral History Project. With OHS serving as the repository for the recordings, USDCHS had earlier written a ringing endorsement of the grant request.

Work was zipping along as the Oregon Historical Society packed up their library for a long-planned renovation in December.  When Oregonians were told to stay home in March 2020 because of the COVID 19 pandemic, work was substantially uninterrupted. By this point, the oral history recordings had all been digitized by the vendor, and work was proceeding on cataloging, indexing, and creating new entries for the Oregon Encyclopedia, some using information from the oral histories.

This June 11, 1914 Oregonian headline notes the balloon race Wilber Henderson spoke of in his 1965 interview.

Library Directory Shawna Gandy speaks admiringly of the work of her colleague Oral History Librarian Sarah Stroman. “She was able to get some other staff engaged in audit-editing transcripts that would otherwise have remained on the back burner. It gave them something productive to do while waiting for the buildings to reopen…. Plus, she hatched a new blog series, Tales from the Oral History Collections that will continue on.”

When asked what surprises she came across working on the project, Sarah Stroman had a quick response. “Perhaps the most delightful surprise came in the form of SR 9448, a 1965 oral history interview with Wilber Henderson” (1887-1966), by Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Charles S. Crookham (1923-2004). Henderson was admitted to the bar in 1911 and later became a member of the Oregon House but he did not want to talk about that. “His interview turned out to be an hour-long tale about his participation in a 1914 balloon race in Portland during Rose Festival.”

Stroman also needed to track down permissions for several dozen oral histories. “The biggest challenge was the unfortunate fact that even the most recent of these interviews were conducted decades ago, and many of the interviewees are now deceased…. I felt like quite the detective finding names and addresses. But once I did locate the next of kin, they were nearly all delighted to sign the necessary forms to allow OHS to share the interviews.”

You can find the portal/launching pad to this fine collection here and the range of the USDCHS oral history project here.  If you can spare 40 seconds, you can enjoy Judge Owen Panner’s Oklahoma drawl in the opening moments of Michael O’Rourke’s 1995 interview as Judge Panner addresses the benefits of a chiming clock in his chambers.

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