Saving Legacies: Pitfalls and Public History
Kip Joseph Kay
University of Utah
Read at the 2011 Phi Alpha Theta Regional Conference
Published in Historia: the Alpha Rho Papers, Vol I.
This paper addresses issues found in the execution of the Saving the Legacy World War II veteran oral history project run in the early 2000s by the American West Center at the University of Utah. Several mistakes made it difficult or impossible for some of the stories collected to be archived as they had been intended. Organizationally, the paper is split in two parts: (1) A brief introduction to oral history as a whole with a subordinate introduction to the Saving the Legacy project. (2) Analysis of the failures found in the project with solutions offered based upon my own experience trying to fix the problems and “best practices” proposed by professional oral historians. The paper both illustrates pitfalls of oral history and provides a rogues gallery of failures experienced by the Saving the Legacy project. Through using the Saving the Legacy project as a case study, examples of specific failings are paired with insights from professional historians to illustrate causation between field practices in oral history and the establishment of Principles and Standards of the Oral History Association.
The backbone of this research is information I collected personally while troubleshooting files of veterans who, for sundry reasons, could not have their stories archived by the University of Utah’s Saving the Legacy project. To support my own first-hand experience I bring in researched opinions from professional historians and the Oral History Association. The conclusion highlights how improperly planned and executed oral history projects can waste resources and potentially do more harm than good, while properly executed oral history projects can successfully contribute to a public understanding of history.