A university that prizes it oral history collection now wants students to leave their voices behind and for alumni to bring theirs back.
University Libraries has launched the UNC Story Archive as a way to gather and preserve authentic voices from the Carolina community.
“We were interested in new ways of documenting campus life, especially the student experience,” said University Archivist Nicholas Graham ’98 (MSLS). “We wanted to create a simple way for students, alumni and others to share their experiences and thoughts in their own voice.”
Tar Heels can take part by signing up for a virtual recording session and then using a computer, phone or other device to capture their story. The archivists offer prompts, but these are just suggestions to get started.
The first four stories from the project are now online for public listening and sharing.
“The important thing is that the story is yours, told the way you want to tell it,” said Cassie Tanks, a graduate student in the School of Information and Library Science who is working on the project.
One goal is to give members of underrepresented groups a way to make their voices heard.
“In the past, archival approaches or concepts of collecting did not deem certain groups to be historically significant because of their race, class, gender or other community identity,” Tanks said. “The UNC Story Archive is a space for people who traditionally would have been left out of or misrepresented in the historical record to tell a piece of University history from their own standpoint.”
One of the archive’s first collaborations was with the Carolina Pride Alumni Network. So far, 10 alumni have participated as part of the organization’s The Story of Us project, which documents the experiences of students at Carolina who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning, intersex, and asexual and/or ally (LGBTQIA).
The archive also is working with the Carolina Firsts student association, an organization for first-generation students.
Graham and Tanks intend to reach out to additional student organizations, campus centers and other alumni groups so that diverse groups of people can share and preserve their stories. When in-person gatherings resume on campus, University Archives also will visit campus events and hold open pop-up recording sessions.
A particular focus in 2021 is capturing students’ lived experience of the pandemic — everything from the small changes that define daily life to the losses and shifts of perspective that will stay with students forever.
“It can be easy for the narrative of student experiences during the pandemic to be reduced to statistics: enrollment changes, testing numbers and so on,” Tanks said. “But what is lost in that are the very real and important experiences of students who had to live through the pandemic, navigate changing University policies and still manage to be a student.”
Graham added: “We are interested in the day-to-day experiences of life during the pandemic. What was it like to move so quickly to online classes in the spring of 2020? What is it like for first-year students who have yet to have a traditional college experience? How did it feel to live in one of the quarantine dorms?”
Every UNC Story Archive participant will have a chance to review and approve their recording before it is finalized. Participants also may submit photos, art or other digital items that help them tell their story.
“Archives are a way of speaking to the future,” Graham said. “It’s vitally important that our record of this period have more than just statistics and administrative memos.”