James Smither
smitherj@gvsu.edu

About the project
 
The GVSU Veterans History Project was established in 2006 to serve as an archiving and collecting partner with the Library of Congress in its national effort to collect and preserve the stories of American veterans and other participants in, or witnesses to, the American experience in wartime. The scope of the project covers all conflicts from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, from the World Wars to Iraq and Afghanistan. It includes both combat veterans and those who served in times of war or peace who did not directly experience combat. It also includes civilian witnesses to different aspects of the wartime experience, including workers in war industries, aid workers, peace activists and civilian contractors. It includes both men and women, and people of all races and ethnic backgrounds, with the larger goal of creating and preserving as complete and diverse a collection of individual stories as possible.
 
Oral history interviews
 
Project members conduct oral history interviews throughout West Michigan, and on occasion beyond. We record our interviews on video, since seeing the veteran tell his or her story adds an important dimension to the interview, and makes it more useful in classroom and public presentation settings than does audio alone. Some of our interviews are done in studio settings and are of suitable quality to be used in documentary projects. Most are done with simpler equipment that costs less and is easier to use, yet still creates videos suitable for archiving. Interviewers include university professors and students, community volunteers, and high school and middle school students whom we train through our schools program. All interviews are conducted following procedures established by the Library of Congress, and are archived both in the Digital Collections of the Grand Valley State University Library and in the Library of Congress.
 
We currently have over 1000 interviews in our collection, including many provided by area schools and partner organizations, and we are constantly adding more as the project continues to grow. At GVSU, we have a website managed by the university archivist where we post summaries, detailed outlines and/or transcripts of each interview. Over 260 of these are currently posted, and we are adding more on a regular basis. We are now beginning to post the videos themselves directly on the library website, as well as to the GVSU collection on iTunes U. The videos are time coded, and the transcripts and outlines reference those time codes, making it possible for the viewer to go directly to specific points in each interview that they wish to view. 
 
Documentaries
 
In addition to building our archive, one of our main goals is to create documentaries based on oral history interviews in order to tell stories of particular interest to both local and national audiences. We completed our first documentary, Nightmare in New Guinea, in 2006, and have shown it to live audiences in Grand Rapids, Holland, Muskegon, Kalamazoo, Lowell and Allendale, and it has aired on WGVU/WGVK television in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. The documentary tells the story of the men from West Michigan who served in the 126th Infantry Regiment, 32nd “Red Arrow” Division, during World War II, focusing on their experiences in the National Guard, their training experiences, and above all their service in the jungles of New Guinea in 1942, where they were the first Americans on the island and found themselves battling terrain, climate and disease in addition to the Japanese. A revised version of the documentary, with additional archival footage and interview material, is currently in preparation.
 
We also are involved in a second documentary project, consulting with Clear Vision Films of Muskegon, Michigan, in the production of Up from the Bottoms, an account of African American migration to Muskegon during the World War II era, when people came up from the south in search of better wages and a better life, encountering both successes and disappointments in the process. The documentary is based upon the oral histories of participants in the migration, and includes commentary from nationally know figures such as Jesse Jackson and Dick Gregory, and is narrated by actress Cicely Tyson.
 
Our newest production, being produced by Professor Frank Boring of the GVSU School of Communications, who also served as executive producer for Nightmare in New Guinea, is A Team of Our Own, based on the story of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League.  The league was featured in the movie A League of Their Own, and operated between 1943 and 1954. The documentary will include oral histories conducted with former players, and with their fans. We have completed the historical research for the project and have recorded 46 oral interviews, some of which are now available for viewing in our digital archive.   
 
Education program
 
Another important dimension of the GVSU Veterans History Project is our outreach program in area schools. Our education committee, led by Stan Spencer, a retired high school history teacher from Caledonia, Michigan, provides training and support for high school and middle school teachers interested in having their students learn to conduct interviews. We also conduct live presentations in schools including some featuring area veterans, and provide consultation for teachers interested in using project materials in their classes.
 
Partner organizations
 
The project has active partnerships with the Byron Area Historic Museum, the Lowell Museum, the Great Lakes Naval Memorial and Museum, the Spring Lake District Library, and the Kentwood Historical Commission. We also work with public access television studios in Grand Rapids (GRIN), Byron Center (BCTV) and Wyoming (WKTV), and have done programming for the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids and the Holland Museum. We conduct regular interviews at the Veterans Home in Grand Rapids, and work with area veterans’ organizations to recruit people to interview and to plan public presentations. We also have an ongoing relationship with the Michigan Military Preservation Society, a private group based in Grand Rapids that first started conducting oral histories for the Library of Congress project in 2003, and are helping them to archive their collection of interviews both at GVSU and with the Library of Congress.
 
University support
 
Grand Valley State University supports the project in a variety of ways. The participation of the library, and specifically of the university archivist, Nancy Richard, is essential to the creation of the archive. In addition, both Dr. Smither and Prof. Boring are permitted to focus on the project as their major activity outside of the classroom, and we receive additional volunteer support from faculty and staff across campus. We also use a small army of student interns and research assistants to assist with interviews, manage the files, prepare outlines and transcripts for posting on the web, and prepare the videos for posting as well. The Provost’s Office and the College of Arts and Sciences have also provided some financial support for the project to supplement resources provided by private donors.
 
Funding and community support
 

While the university has provided valuable financial assistance to the project, we have no regular budget line or endowment, and operate on a pay-as-you-go basis, relying primarily on private donations and grants to support our projects and activities. As one might expect, we appreciate all donations, large or small, and we make a point of putting that money to good use. We also value the support provided by volunteers from the community who conduct interviews for us and help to recruit veterans for us to interview, and we have a particular need for volunteer transcriptionists. Anyone interested either in making a donation or volunteering with the project should condtact Dr. Smither.

  Last Modified Date: August 26, 2010
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