NIU 125th Anniversary Oral History Project tells stories of NIU history

The 125th Anniversary Oral History Project is a celebration of the many people and events that make up NIU’s rich history. Led by Amanda Littauer, NIU associate professor, Department of History and Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality, and JoAnn Losavio, a doctoral student who served as project manager, this unique collection of personal narratives was supported by the President’s Office, University Libraries, Friends of NIU Libraries and DeKalb Public Library.

“The project’s main purpose is to create an accessible collection of interviews that represents a diverse range of NIU community members’ memories and meaning-making about their experiences at NIU,” Littauer said. “Personal narratives speak to the history of NIU in ways that other records cannot.”

A dozen NIU students were trained as interviewers, and 26 current and former NIU staff, faculty and students were interviewed for the university’s inaugural Oral History Project.

“Traditional archival historical research is good at capturing institutional knowledge; oral histories are good at capturing cultural history: the vibe, feel, and the atmosphere and environment of a place, a time, a society, a community,” Losavio said. “Archives are great but the people who decide what documents to keep and what to trash often work for the institution and have a different mission to fulfill.”

Losavio said oral history projects can capture both positive, negative, and neutral perceptions and interpretations of the same story.

“I think that’s what makes this particular project significant,” Losavio said.

Sarah Cain, assistant professor and curator of rare books and special collections, University Libraries,
shared the sentiment.

“Oral histories are important as they capture moments in time as told by the persons who experienced them,” Cain said. “The histories provide us with the chance to look at NIU’s culture and historical events through the lens of the student, faculty, staff, or community member telling the story.”

Some of the interviewees were former NIU students who moved on to become staff, faculty or members of administration.

“There may be administrative records, photos, or ephemera stashed away in the University Archives that can hint at the things addressed by the interviewees, but the oral histories bring a whole other life and understanding to events,” Cain said. “Protests and riots of the 1960s and 70s, the establishment of  different campus centers and graduate programs and veterans coming back as students after serving in the war are all part of the Huskie fabric.”

Littauer said the interviews are significant historical sources as well as moving personal accounts.

“Every single interview sheds light not only on aspects of NIU’s history but also the narrator’s struggles, beliefs, formative memories and sense of humor,” Littauer said. “Every person at NIU has an important story to tell and all of us can learn and grow by expanding our connections across campus and beyond.

The Oral History Project is available through the NIU Digital Library and is being preserved in the Regional History Center and University Archives in Founders Memorial Library.

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