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Digital time capsules: UNC Story Archive preserves oral histories for future generations


UNC graduate student Sarah Bulger poses for a portrait in front of Wilson Library on April 18, 2021. Bulger is a participant in the UNC Story Archive project based in the Wilson Special Collections Library.

The University Library is looking for participants for its recently released UNC Story Archive, a program where members of the campus community can tell their stories — all in their own voice.

The project is based in the Wilson Special Collections Library and is open to all members of the UNC community, including students, alumni and faculty. 

Nicholas Graham, the university archivist, said the goal of the project is to build a more comprehensive and representative record of the UNC experience — especially those of students.

“It’s been hard to find traces of student life in the archives,” Graham said. “We have the official records of the University going back to 1789, but with much more of a focus on administrators and departments. We really wanted a way where students could contribute to the archives to make sure that their experiences at UNC are preserved, but preserved in their own voices and their own words.”

Those that choose to participate record an audio clip describing their personal experiences at the University. The recording, along with a transcript and optional self-selected images are then stored online in the University Library’s Digital Collections Repository.

So far, the UNC Story Archive has released four entries —  three of which voice student experiences during the pandemic.

One of these voices is Sarah Bulger, a first-generation graduate student majoring in library and information science. In her story, she recounts her experiences of the coronavirus pandemic and how it impacted her first year of graduate school.

As a student with a concentration in archives and records management, Bulger said she has a deeper understanding of the significance of an archival-based project. She said she hopes her story, along with others, provides a historical resource for future students to understand the pandemic.

“In 100 years, UNC students can come back and listen to these experiences from real people,” Bulger said. “It’s just so valuable, especially the diversity of voices that they’re trying to curate.”

The remaining entry of the archive is "The Story of Us" – a collaborative project with the Carolina Pride Alum Network to highlight LGBTQ+ voices of the University community. Graham said "The Story of Us" is part of the UNC Story Archive’s mission to bring more historically underrepresented groups into the University’s records.

“The student voices that are preserved tend to be people who were prominent and privileged,” Graham said. “You’ll see some good records of student body leaders or athletes, but we wanted to make sure that this was a program that was open and really reached out to all students – especially students who may have been underrepresented in traditional records.”

"The Story of Us" entry features Maia Bar Am, a 2001 UNC graduate, who tells the story of her undergraduate UNC experience.

In her recording, Am reflects on being an athlete on the fencing team, coming out as bisexual her sophomore year, and how she navigated through a mental health crisis during her junior year. Am said she appreciated the opportunity to tell her story, both to provide visibility for the LGBTQ+ community and to raise mental health awareness.

“I’m an out, queer woman in the Orthodox Jewish community, so visibility is everything,” Am said. “I think it’s so important to hear the stories of folks like me.”

Am said having a platform that gives people the opportunity to tell their story is crucial, especially for groups that have been left out of historical documentation.

“Everyone’s story makes up part of our collective history,” Am said. “So often, the story of marginalized groups gets left out. You’re really only getting a little piece of history, you’re only getting one version of people’s experiences.”

Bulger said she is not only looking forward to helping future students but also contributing to the long-term effects of orally documenting history.

“This project is important because it embodies a generational ideal,” she said. “This is just so crucial to our time period, to our generation’s story, to future generations and past generations, because anyone can put their voice in there.” 

Cassie Tanks, a graduate student working on the UNC Story Archive, said the program is also working with other communities, such as Carolina Firsts – UNC’s collective for first-generation students. 

“The UNC Story Archive project was conceived as an idea to allow students, alumni and other people that are in the UNC community to tell their story from their standpoint,” Tanks said. “This was especially important for people from groups and communities whose University history has actively silenced, has erased, has grossly misrepresented. Giving people the opportunity to speak truth to history and speak truth to the archives.”

Tanks said that another important aspect of this project is that from start to finish, participants have full control over what they share and how they share it. This includes recording time, when the story is released and even which subject headings or keywords accompany it. Tanks said that this shared-control aspect is an effort to ethically record oral histories.

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“Nothing gets released until everyone is totally happy with everything, because it is their story.” Tanks said. “People are donating their time, they’re donating pieces of themselves. There is a co-authorship."

UNC community members who would like to participate in the project can fill out an online form on the UNC Story Archive webpage.

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