Preserving Oral Histories with New Technology

As the Virginia War Memorial Foundation reflects on the work accomplished in 2022, one notable project remains top of mind: preserving and sharing veteran histories.

For more than a decade, the Memorial has collected veteran oral histories, mainly from World War II veterans and their surviving family members. These interviews, nearly 1,300, have been collected in a variety of formats — reel-to-reel tape, cassettes, video, and most recently in born digital format (i.e. cellphones, computers).

The oral histories collection at the Virginia War Memorial represents a remarkable archive – first person accounts of valor, sacrifice, fear, danger, and patriotism. This collection is quite possibly the single largest trove of veteran oral histories in the state. Many of these accounts were included in our award- winning documentary film series, Virginians at War. However, as the documentary films were created to be shown in classroom settings, most histories were trimmed down to short clips to fit into the films’ 20 to 30 minute timeframe. Hours of personal stories remained unavailable to the public.

For this extensive collection to be of real use to researchers, these primary sources must be accessible online, with content easily discoverable by key-word searches and transcriptions. In 2021 and 2022, the Foundation completed what is possibly the most daunting step in managing the legacy collection of oral histories – a comprehensive inventory of the histories.

The next step, digitizing and transcribing the histories, is currently in progress thanks to a generous grant from the Alfred I. duPont Foundation. Thanks to their support, the Foundation is working with Cinebar Productions to accomplish this. By June 2023, we expect to be nearly 50% complete with this step. The work is especially critical as the older interviews on tape and cassette are in danger of deteriorating.

Collecting oral histories from Virginia Veterans is an ongoing effort. This year, as part of the plan for the new exhibition “50 Years Beyond: The Vietnam Veteran Experience,” Memorial staffers and associates collected fifty oral histories, including film content, which will be preserved and transcribed for future researchers.

While the digitization and transcription processes are ongoing, in an effort to share our veterans stories to a broader audience, our entire archive of Virginians at War documentaries are now available online on Vimeo and YouTube. This helps the Foundation’s mission to ensure these histories remain available to all.

As we welcome the New Year, we work to continue to collect, preserve, and share these important stories with the public, throughout Virginia and across the nation.