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Voices of state’s history can be heard free online

Guy Clifton
Reno Gazette-Journal
In this May 24, 2013 photo, Alicia Barber, left, and Karen Frazier of the University of Nevada Oral History Program, pose in front of some of the program’s publications in Reno, Nev. All the program’s interviews from the past 49 years are now available online. (AP Photo/The Reno Gazette-Journal, Guy Clifton) NO SALES; NEVADA APPEAL OUT; SOUTH RENO WEEKLY OUT
AP | The Reno Gazette-Journal

RENO — The 1897 heavyweight title fight between champion James Corbett and challenger Bob Fitzsimmons in Carson City has been well-documented in the history books of Nevada.

But did you know that Fitzsimmons, while training for the fight, attended church services at Nevada State Prison?

Lucy Davis Crowell knew that. In fact, she and Fitzsimmons “sang out of the same hymn book more than once.”

“He was very cordial and genial and happy-go-lucky, and everybody liked him,” Crowell said in an interview in 1965. “He was very friendly, and he thoroughly enjoyed coming in there and holding service with us.”

Crowell’s recollections of that interaction with Fitzsimmons — and her memories of Carson City at the turn of the 20th century — are part of a treasure trove of Nevada history in the collection of the University of Nevada Oral History Program.

From the World War II recollections of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who were on the front lines of the action, to the early days of Nevada’s gaming industry, to civil rights, ranching life, immigration and the words of state government leaders, the Oral History program has spent nearly 50 years documenting the voices of hundreds of Nevadans.

And now, thanks to a five-year effort between the Oral History Program and the university’s special collections department, those words are only a mouse click away. The transcripts of 577 interviews are online in a searchable database format, and more are to come by the end of the month. To access them, go to oralhistory.unr.edu.

“We’re finishing up a lot of unfinished projects,” said Alicia Barber, director of the Oral History Program. “By the end of June, we’re hoping it comes up to 770 interviews. The breadth is huge, and I think people are going to be amazed at what they can find.”

The Oral History Program was started in 1964 by the Desert Research Institute and its Center for North American Studies. Longtime interviewer Mary Ellen Glass worked there and focused on early state figures and community history.

The program eventually moved to the University of Nevada, Reno and continued to grow under directors Tom King and Mary Larson.

A number of the oral histories — such as autobiographies of former Lt. Gov. Sue Wagner and late Reno Gazette-Journal columnist Rollan Melton, the history of Harolds Club and others — have been converted into book form and sold by the department.

But it’s probably fair to say the program is little known outside of academia and seasoned history researchers.

Getting the information online opens the program to everyone, Barber said.

“When I became director of the program in 2009, my top priority was creating some kind of online access to the transcripts,” she said. “That was the year when the program lost all its state funding, so we really weren’t sure how much time we would have to work on the program. Much of our priority was to make the transcripts as open as possible to as many people as possible.”

The effort led to Oral History teaming with an equally unsung treasure trove of Nevada history — the Special Collections Department inside the university’s library.

Special Collections has spent the past several years moving its content online for the public. The merging of the two efforts seemed a natural fit.

“The whole structure has been created by the Special Collections Department,” Barber said.

In addition, all the tapes, documents, photographs and other items once housed in Oral History have been transferred to Special Collections and are available for reviews and research purposes at the library.

“By the late ’70s, they were saving the full audio of all the interviews,” Barber said. “We have 3,600 hours of audio in the collection as well.”

The program is in the process of digitizing the audio files, converting them from reel-to-reel and cassette tapes, which have a tendency to break.

“Having access to all of these transcripts online is really going to benefit everyone,” Barber said. “From students — younger students and older students — to the general public, to professional researchers, to everyone. We have so many different ways to search the collection, people who have any kind of interest can find a way to search and get into these incredible collections.”