By Zeynab Day
Student Writer, EKU Communications & Marketing
Voices from Kentucky residents recorded decades ago are now used in Eastern Kentucky University classrooms to help students connect with the region’s rich history.
Eastern’s new oral historian, Neil Kasiak, said the William H. Berge Oral History Center Online Archive offers insights into controversial times in history and includes interviews from coal miners, EKU’s first female student athletes, local civil rights activists and numerous others.
“My philosophy is that the best example of history is the history that is going on every day around us,” said Kasiak, “because what is oral history, if not capturing perspectives?”
Kasiak started full time in August but has been working in Eastern’s Special Collections and Archives since he started volunteering as a graduate student in 2010. He saw tremendous potential as he began to help catalog research for the Oral History Center Online Archive at oralhistory.eku.edu. The Archive launched in June 2012 and sparked a renewed interest in oral history and the need for a full-time oral historian.
“From the day I walked into this Archive I realized I kind of had a career path laid before me,” Kasiak said.
He hopes current research projects and classroom involvement will grow Eastern’s Oral History Center, which already has a rich history. It was one of the first of its kind when it was established by Berge in 1977, a time when oral history research was considered controversial by many contemporary historians.
“The idea of listening to people tell their stories wasn’t considered the traditional practice of history,” Kasiak said. “It was viewed (by historians) as journalism, or something that was outside of credible history.”
Oral history slowly gained acceptance and is now a prominent subject in many universities. The Oral History Center lost funding in 1994 but recently reopened. Kasiak said he is working to put the Center “back on the map” by creating new programs and research projects.
Several student involvement projects are underway through the Oral History Center in collaboration with professors, administrators, and community members. For example, Kasiak is working with Dr. Ed Fredrickson’s Food and Society course. Students will conduct and catalog interviews with local farmers to be used for future research.
“This is a great means of providing students with tools of community engagement and an appreciation of what goes into oral histories,” Kasiak said. “Also, it promotes the idea that people should be good listeners.”
He emphasized the importance of capturing history in the form of raw voice interviews. Oral history recordings are different from news interviews because they are presented in a raw and uncut form, free from editorial bias, he said.
“How much more authentic can you get about a person then their own voice?” asked Kasiak. “Hearing the inflections, hearing the emotions, as opposed to reading them in an article.”
Oral history recording could serve as a tool for professors to convey effective listening skills and the importance of picking up on subtle cues. “You really have to listen to what is the essence of these interviews, beyond what is actually being spoken, to really understand,” Kasiak said.
Kasiak is also collaborating with Dr. Stephanie McSpirit, from the EKU Department of Anthropology, Sociology and Social Work, to help manage the Appalachian Equine Project, a research initiative to gather interviews from owners and breeders of the Rocky Mountain horse, a breed specific to the Appalachian region. Although horse industry research is common in Kentucky, this project is unique because of its focus.
“The difference is that we are not going to investigate thoroughbreds and the racing industry,” Kasiak said. The research will be focusing on farming horses and why this particular breed was so prevalent among Kentucky farmers.
EKU African-American alumni from the 1960s will be interviewed over Homecoming weekend for an upcoming project, Fade to Black, funded by the Kentucky Oral History Commission Project. Graduates will be asked about their time at Eastern and their lives following graduation.
Kasiak mentioned that many other projects focused on capturing and indexing Kentucky’s history are also planned.
Kasiak graduated from Purdue University with a degree in anthropology and a minor in history. After travelling the country for a few years he came to Eastern to complete a master’s degree. He graduated in 2012 with a degree in history and began teaching adjunct classes before beginning his work with the Oral History Center.
“History’s my passion,” Kasiak said. "I realized that my passion can do good things for the Oral History Center.”