Library unveils Great Depression conversations

31 Jan

Fully searchable resource brings invaluable, previously inaccessible oral history within reach. 

In March of 1992, many years after photographer Dorothea Lange’s 1936 image of a migrant mother in California became one of the most iconic images from the Great Depression, a camera crew sat down with two daughters of the subject of Lange’s photo.

“We’re talking to Norma Rydlewski and Katherine McIntosh about their mother and their experiences,” the interviewer explained. “I guess what I’d like to get first of all is [a] sense of what kind of woman your mother was. What does it take to live through that?”

Portrait shows Florence Owens Thompson with several of her children in a photograph known as “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange.

For about 40 minutes, Rydlewski and McIntosh shared their stories with Blackside, Inc., a film company founded by 1961 Washington University graduate Henry Hampton. In the footage and transcript of that conversation, now accessible for the first time along with many more such interviews through WU Libraries, the family’s daily challenges come to life. The sisters describe not only their strong, beautiful mother but everything from field work and playing with dirt clods as children to early union meetings and the economical “saving grace” that was World War II.

When The Great Depression, Blackside’s seven-part documentary series, debuted on PBS in October of 1993, the program wove together short segments from extensive interviews with 148 people who experienced the Great Depression, including Rydlewski and McIntosh. As illuminating as the documentary is in its own right, the many additional hours of oral history that Blackside recorded in the process of creating it are a treasure trove of primary source material—all of it newly viewable, browsable, and searchable online.

“Hampton’s film crews conducted hundreds of hours of interviews for their documentary series, but in most cases only a small portion of those interviews made it to the final program, leaving the complete interviews virtually unseen and inaccessible,” says Nadia Ghasedi, head of the library’s Visual Media Research Lab, where the Henry Hampton Collection resides. “This new resource of both the complete interview transcripts and video from The Great Depression enables anyone to search and view invaluable primary source material related to a pivotal time in 20th-century American history. It also allows researchers to see which portions of the interviews appeared in the final program, giving insights into the documentary storytelling process.”

Digital Archivist Jim Hone, who digitized more than 110 hours of interview material for this project, notes that the Blackside team produced a body of work that is “the gold standard of documentary form.”

“They sweated the details on every photograph, sound, and moving image in their programs,” Hone says. “Better still, they left us a meticulous record of their preparations, meetings, screenings, and self-critique. You can learn a lot by studying them.”

The diverse range of individuals whose reflections on the 1930s are now easily accessible include a grandson of Franklin D. and Eleanor Rooselvelt, celebrated authors Maya Angelou and Gore Vidal, longtime New York Times political reporter Warren Moscow, actors Karen Morley and Ossie Davis, Morton Newman, who worked on the Upton Sinclair campaign for governor in California, and many more from all walks of life. The multicultural, multiregional approach brings needed depth and color to an era that is often remembered and depicted as a monolithic event dragging the nation down for a decade, says Film & Media Archive assistant Alison Carrick, who managed the workflow of the digitization project.

“When we think about the Great Depression, images of the dust bowl and breadlines immediately come to mind,” Carrick says. “And that is part of the history Blackside covered with this series, but they also revealed complex and lively stories that are often overlooked—from union struggles, to heated political campaigns, Works Progress Administration projects, the New Deal, and more. What Blackside managed to do with this series and these interviews was to bring that period of history back to life in a vivid, engaging way.”

Hone adds that in working through every minute of the interviews and taking notes in the process, he’s been struck by the stories of human survival, persistence, and endurance.

“I recently started working on another Blackside series digitization project—this time America’s War on Poverty,” says Hone. “It’s like working on a jigsaw puzzle of history. I look forward to it every day.”

The Great Depression Interviews project illustrates the rich collections that WU Libraries staff members are bringing within easy reach of students, faculty, and the wider world. It’s also one example of the collaborative, complex nature of the work required to do so. From early steps like identifying the types of media on which each interview exists and cataloging the camera rolls, sound rolls, and video items, to transcribing and encoding the content in text files according to best practices, to the digitization of more than 300 videocassettes and final design of the online, user-friendly interface, efforts to make such collections as freely accessible and usable as possible are far from simple. Archive staff work closely with the Digital Library Services unit to bring such projects to fruition.

The result is a seamless, powerful tool with much potential for interdisciplinary research.

“One of the best features of the site, thanks to DLS, is that it is text/keyword searchable,” Carrick says. “This creates a way for users to pinpoint a subject, name, or event and quickly look to see where it occurs in each transcript. Our hope is that this feature will lead users to other transcripts they might not have thought contained similar subject matter.”

The homepage URL for The Great Depression Interviews is digital.wustl.edu/greatdepression.

Photo information for image above: Among the scores of interviewees whose reflections on the Great Depression comprise a newly accessible WU Libraries resource are two daughters of Florence Owens Thompson, the subject of Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph.

Article by Evie Hemphill (@evhemphill), a writer and photographer for Washington University Libraries in St. Louis.

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