By GERALDINE OTREMBA
A highly decorated Japanese-American veteran of World War II, the first woman to command a Navy vessel, and a high-school teacher whose students have collected veterans’ oral histories shared their stories and expertise directly with 200,000 students in a “teach-in” at the Library of Congress.
Promoting a national project to collect and preserve the oral histories of America’s war veterans, these panelists spoke about their experiences and answered questions during a National Teach-in on Veterans History in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library on Oct. 21. The students participating hailed from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
The History television channel teamed up with the Library’s Veterans History Project (VHP) to sponsor the teach-in, which reached not only the auditorium audience of students from the District of Columbia and neighboring states, but also young people in more than 2,000 distant classrooms linked to the Library for the webcast, which is available at www.veterans.com and scheduled for release on the Library’s website at www.loc.gov/webcasts/.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., joined Librarian of Congress James H. Billington in greeting the students, including those watching from their classrooms in the congresswoman’s district. Wasserman Schultz urged them to find veterans in their families and communities and record their interviews for addition to VHP archives at the Library.
“You have a chance to accomplish something of historical importance so that our nation does not lose the strands of memory that bind us,” she said.
The teach-in was the latest collaboration between the Library and the History channel aimed at giving wider exposure to the Library’s collections, programs and expert staff. The one-hour discussion was moderated by Libby O’Connell, chief historian for History. Students in both the local and distant audiences asked questions.
Bob Patrick, director of the Veterans History Project (VHP) at the Library, summing up the importance of the national teach-in, said “We are thrilled to be associated with History on this important day and know that the impact for educational outreach as a result of this program will be wide and long-lasting.”
Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., sponsored the legislation that created the Veterans History Project in 1999 after he recorded war memories of his father and uncle at a family picnic so that he could save their stories for his young sons. Kind thanked Billington and the VHP staff for the Library’s embrace of the program and its growth over the past 10 years. He urged students to get involved in the program and “bring history to life” by interviewing the nation’s veterans.
Patrick and teacher Jonathan Bickel were asked basic questions about oral history—how best to record interviews, the relationship of oral history to traditional records, and the educational value of participating in VHP. Patrick stressed that oral history provides the “living” history, the “first-person account told by someone who was there.” Someone watching the teach-in webcast in West Virginia asked the panel who uses these interviews and why they matter. Patrick responded that researchers have used the VHP interviews as important sources for recent and forthcoming books about World War II and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For the teachers participating nationwide, Patrick pointed out that the digitized portions of the VHP collection are ideal primary sources for teaching history. He reminded the audience that the oral histories are a supplement to traditional historical analysis and are the “experience of war” as a way to understand the “facts about war.” The Library’s website features a new primary-source set of VHP materials to coincide with the teach-in (www.loc.gov/teachers/).
Bickel offered practical tips for both students and teachers. He and Patrick agreed that preparation for an interview is essential because a VHP interview creates an “important, lasting memory” for the veteran, his or her family and the nation.
Bickel added that the VHP oral history project had provided an “authentic learning experience” for his students, who had learned how to conduct research and to work collaboratively on the project.
In give-and-take between the students and the panel, a student in San Antonio asked Terry Shima, a decorated World War II veteran, what had made his unit, the much-decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team, so outstanding. Shima replied that the only goal of the soldiers in his regiment, which consisted solely of Nisei (both Hawaiian-born and American-born sons of Japanese immigrants), was to “prove loyalty to a government that distrusted them.” (The U.S. government had interned some 120,000 Japanese-American citizens in relocation camps in 1942 after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.)
Shima told the rapt audience that seeing prominent Japanese-Americans serving in the most senior U. S. military ranks decades after the 1940s era of distrust and prejudice “proved the greatness of America.”
A student asked Darlene Iskra what it meant for her to be the first female commander of a Navy ship. She said she realized “it was a bigger deal than I had imagined” only after she had boarded her vessel for the first time and found stacks of congratulatory messages. Iskra told the audience that her VHP interview allowed her to capture her historic milestone in Navy leadership as well as rich details about daily life on board ship that she was never able to share with her extended family while she was serving.
The final question of the teach-in was directed to all the members of the panel: Are there particular groups of veterans whose stories need to be recorded? All the panelists offered suggestions. Iskra mentioned the older World War II veterans. (After the webcast she mentioned the need to find women who served in World War II and those who, for the first time, served alongside men in the military and then often returned to a more traditional civilian or family life.) Patrick mentioned the particular focus of VHP to collect oral histories from the 3 million veterans of the Vietnam War and the need for diversity in the collections overall.
History: An Educational Partnership
The National Teach-in on Veterans History is the most recent example of collaboration between the Library and the History television channel to create educational programs using Library resources.
Since a cooperative agreement was signed in April 2008, the History television channel has provided the Library with public programming and audio-visual assets valued at $3.8 million.
Collaboration of the Library with History began with the 2008 launch of the Library of Congress Experience in the Jefferson Building. History produced the visitor orientation film and provided 1,500 DVD copies for the Library’s use for school and other tour groups.
The History website (www.history.com) regularly features the Library and a number of co-produced features about the Library’s collections and curators. A number of History’s original productions, such as “Stealing Lincoln’s Body” and “D-Day: the Lost Evidence,” have given the Library credit for use of research materials from the collections.
A programming committee consists of Jo Ann Jenkins, the Library’s chief operating officer, and Deanna Marcum, associate librarian for Library Services, who serve with senior History executives. Geraldine Otremba, a senior adviser in the Office of the Librarian, is the programming liaison. Sheryl Cannady in the Office of Communications provides logistical support for these productions.
History programming includes “Hidden Treasures from the Library of Congress,” which consists of 26 lively segments featuring highlights from the Library’s collections and curators’ interpretations of their cultural and historical significance. Produced in 2009, these segments include the contents of Lincoln’s pockets and the Nicolay draft of the Gettysburg Address, as well as 20th-century materials such as the first Spiderman comics drawings. These productions may be viewed on myLOC.gov and History.com/treasures.
History interviewed historians and public figures such as Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to accompany the Library’s Lincoln bicentennial exhibition “With Malice Toward None,” which is now on tour. History’s IDEA Book for 250,000 teachers featured the exhibition and associated teaching materials prepared by the Library’s Interpretive Programs and Educational Outreach staff.
In 2010, History will air a one-hour special on the Library in its popular “Modern Marvels” series. The documentary highlights the role of technology throughout the Library with a special focus on preservation and conservation and features all of the Library’s facilities on Capitol Hill, as well as at Ft. Meade and the Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Va.
Geraldine Otremba is senior adviser for education at the Library of Congress.