Saving the Stories of Kentucky's Past

By: Whitney Hale and Alicia P. Gregory
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Personal stories innately have the power to captivate audiences, since the speaker is the richest source to transport a listener back in time to a place in history, whether it is on a field of battle, serving the poor or sharing a message delivered on the floor of Congress.

Doug Boyd, director of the University of Kentucky Libraries Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, has a keen understanding of just how powerful a personal account can be and is charged with leading the center as it diligently works to preserve the stories of our past. The late Louie B. Nunn was governor of Kentucky from 1967 to 1971 and allocated funds to UK Libraries for a non-partisan oral history initiative. He and his family later led the effort to create a $1.3 million endowment for the center.

“We are building a collection that attempts to represent and document all facets of Kentucky history and culture and Kentuckians’ roles in national events,” says Boyd, who earned a Ph.D. in folklore from Indiana University and previously served as director of Digital Programs at University of Alabama Libraries and as director of the Kentucky Oral History Commission. The Nunn Center is collecting stories from Kentucky history, with an emphasis on interviews related to politics and public policy, military history, Appalachia, Kentucky writers, agriculture, and the history of UK.

With more than 7,000 interviews, the Nunn Center has one of the nation’s largest collections of oral histories. And Boyd is happy to drop some famous names: “Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Lady Bird Johnson, Earle C. Clements, A.B. ‘Happy’ Chandler, Stan Musial, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Penn Warren, and Adolph Rupp, to name a few. We have many famous folks, but we also have thousands of everyday people—farmers, coal miners, teachers—whose stories are documented as well.”

Boyd says more than 500 of these interviews are used by researchers each year. “We’ve had prominent researchers like U.S. Senate Historian Don Ritchie, historian and university president George Wright and John Carroll, former editor of the Los Angeles Times, who is here in Lexington working on a book, use our collection,” he says. And it’s been an important resource for faculty and graduate students here at UK.

Tracy Campbell, a professor of history and co-director of the Wendell H. Ford Public Policy Research Center, says, “The Nunn Center is one of the nation’s finest repositories of political oral history. The raw stuff of power politics is rarely seen in the written record. Oral history provides the material that allows scholars to access a deeper level of analysis, and better helps us understand the underlying dynamics of modern politics.”

And Gerald Smith, an associate professor of history and co-editor of the Kentucky African American Encyclopedia, says the Nunn Center’s Blacks in Lexington Collection “is an extremely rich and invaluable source of information for persons interested in studying Lexington, Kentucky, during segregation.”

A growing number of the center’s collections are available online for researchers and the general public to access, capitalizing on Boyd’s personal research into audio and video digitization, digital preservation, and usability and Web interfaces in oral history. Boyd, a nationally recognized expert on digital oral history, is focusing on innovative approaches that will allow researchers anywhere in the world to access this rich collection to both hear the interviews and read the transcripts.

Boyd says, “The promise of oral history has been to save first-person accounts of our culture. With that well under way, our challenge now is to utilize the latest technologies to provide researchers, students and the public efficient and accurate access to this priceless collection of memories.”

And one of those unique memories, the William B. Keightley Oral History Project, launched online last fall. This collection gives the public a unique opportunity to not only hear the legend, known to many UK basketball fans as “Mr. Wildcat,” but to search his own words for topics and other key basketball figures he speaks about in the interviews. Keightley, who died March 31, 2008, was associated with the UK Wildcats basketball program since 1962 and was as much a fixture around UK basketball as the seven national championship trophies the team amassed.

photo of director Doug Boyd

Doug Boyd is the director of the UK Libraries Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History. With more than 7,000 interviews, the Nunn Center has one of the nation’s largest collections of oral histories.

Shaun Ring

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