Let’s Talk, A Conversation with Troy Reeves, Head, UW-Madison Oral History Program

Photo – Zoom, Model H4n Digital Voice Recorder

I originally met Mr. Reeves through an oral history class taught at the Nampa Public Library in February 2016, courtesy of the Idaho Humanities Council. The two-hour class introduced us to the work of an oral historian and was a wonderful starting point for those interested in oral history either as a hobby or a profession.

To begin it is worth noting some of Mr. Reeves’ bona fides. The following information is drawn from the University of Wisconsin-Madison staff directory. Mr. Reeves manages collecting and curating oral history recordings, as well as communicating and collaborating with interested individuals about the art and science of oral history in both Wisconsin and Idaho. He is responsible for twenty oral history projects in both states covering such topics as cultural, political, and environmental history. He has been published in such journals as the Western Historical Quarterly, the Public Historian and the Oral History Review. He is also the managing editor of the Oral History Review overseeing day-to-day operations, including its social media initiative. He also works with the editorial team to add multimedia (both audio and audio/visual) content into the journal’s articles.  Finally, Reeves has held various leadership roles in the national Oral History Association.

Mr. Reeves near twenty-year career began with a part-time, six-month project for the City of Boise in 1997. From 1999 until 2007 he served as Idaho State Oral Historian, Idaho State Historical Society (ISHS). He left that position to become the head of the oral history program at the General Library System at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which encompasses forty libraries on campus.

Mr. Reeves’ educational path typifies oral historians. He received a Bachelor of Arts, History from Idaho State University and a Masters of Arts, History from Utah State University.  In both programs he selected projects that allowed him to do oral interviews in conjunction with other research he was conducting. Reeves stated that the few full-time jobs in oral history require at least a master’s degree, typically in history, folklore, library sciences, or journalism. Recently Columbia University began offering an Oral History Master of Arts.

Interpersonal skills are of paramount importance, being a good if not a great listener. He quoted a friend, Sarah White, who says, “Being a good listener requires not only the ear, but the brain and sometimes the heart.” Being a good researcher is essential so you know the person or people you are interviewing and the topic being discussed. Finally, perseverance is vital. People will back out of interviews leaving you stranded. Finding funds for different projects is frustrating. Knowing you have a good idea and the interest in the topic is not enough, it takes perseverance to get the project done.

When asked about salary, Mr. Reeves chuckled and said, “In the humanities there is never a poverty of ideas, only a poverty of everything else.”  As the State Historian for the Idaho State Historical Society his starting wage was $13.50.  No oral historian positions were found on National Council of Public History jobs board, however other entry level jobs on the site started at $15-$19.

“Oral history is what I do and who I am,” said Reeves.  His position is funded by the library to promote oral history on the campus, especially focusing on capturing the history of the university. His projects fall into two “buckets,” campus life stories and project or topic-based oral histories.  As an example of the first he cited a recent interview conducted with a wildlife biologist who talked about his work and the history of the university over the last nearly forty years. Reeves would like to do more such interviews, but as a one-person operation he typically can only do a few each year.

Front page of Wisconsin State Journal Oct 67 Riots
In 1967, University of Wisconsin students and police clashed when an anti-war protest – Pinterest

A project or topic-based project can be found in the interviews he is conducting around the 2011 protests which occurred at the state capital and on campus regarding changes Governor Scott Walker and the Wisconsin legislature were trying to implement. Since summer of 2011 he has been interviewing graduate students and some faculty and staff who were deeply involved in those protests. Another hot period for protests on campus occurred between October 1967, when there was an anti-war riot on campus, and August 1970 when there was a bombing on campus. These interviews continue with people who were actually on campus at that time.

Mr. Reeves also does off-campus work for the Wisconsin State Historical Society. He does training and workshops for them around Wisconsin, at their annual meeting and out of state such as the one in Nampa. He also works with different people who aren’t paid historians but who do oral history work ancillary to their jobs. Finally, he works closely with the full-time oral historian archivist at the vets’ museum. All of this exemplifies the campus ethos to get outside of campus and help others.

“Oral History Now and Tomorrow” was the topic of a panel discussion at the 50th Anniversary conference of the Oral History Association. Some current issues are:

  • Now that you can put digital audio online, should you? What are the ethics of doing so?
  • In an organization that prides itself on being egalitarian, who gets left out when there is a focus on degrees and professional development?
  • Oral history in crisis or contemporary settings, when is it okay to start doing oral histories?
  • Are there differences in the way a feminist may conduct an oral history project as opposed to someone not imbued with feminist history or feminist studies.

The oral historian techniques and methodologies should be in every historians’ toolkit.  Hearing and not just reading the words of those who witness history provides a bonus of information that may be otherwise missed by any student of history.

Steve Barrett, State Archivist

I interviewed Steve Barrett, an archivist at Idaho State Archives. Since I am currently interning at the special collections in Albertson’s Library, I thought it would be interesting to look deeper into a career in archiving. He was extremely helpful and I learned so much while talking with him.


What path did you take to get to your current position? 

Steven Barrett has his PhD in American literature and obtained the position of archivist through unexpected channels. After following his wife to Boise when she got a job as a professor of literature at Boise State, Barrett started out volunteering at any location in which he might want a job. After starting out as a volunteer with the Boise library he eventually climbed the ladder there while still volunteering at Idaho State Archive in their research center. Climbing the ladder in the Historical Society in Boise, he worked as management assistant for the entire historical society for three years and then back into the Archive where he has been for the last few years. Barrett explained, “You don’t necessarily have to be a history major to work for a state archives. And in my case you can’t understand American Literature if you don’t understand American History.”  Most people in the research center have library degrees or backgrounds and the workers in the archive usually come from history backgrounds.


Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on over the years? Is there anything that stands out?

Barrett explained that every project he is currently working on tends to be his favorite. One special project, however, is the Abraham Lincoln collection belonging to David Lee Roy who used to be Lieutenant governor under Cecil Anders.  Roy has been collecting Lincoln artifacts for decades and Barrett commented that his house is essentially a museum. Roy has donated a section of his collection to the State Archive who plan to create a five room exhibit out of it. Barrett plans to work with a volunteer who has an MA from King’s College in London to build Lincoln’s cabinet room as well as four other rooms featuring documents and artifacts from different eras in Lincoln’s life.


What kind of issues or problems do you see occurring in the archive or historical world?

            Barrett surprised me with his first ‘issue,’ he explained that one problem the archive world is by 2017 Idaho wants to go completely digital. Federal and state documents will never occur outside a digital form. As Barrett explained, “That’s great as long as the power is on.” It would then be up to the archive to store the digital document in perpetuity. Like we discussed in Digital History, the constant migration of the documents causes degradation and there’s also the progression of technology that may cause issues for preservation. How do archives store the massive amount of material then? Hard drive on shelf? A server? “Paper is still the most enduring record. Will we have records created today 100 years from now when they’re created digitally? No body knows. I call it the second Dark Ages.”


You mentioned Business Model, which is something that we have discussed in our class. Do you see anything positive in moving towards a business model?

            Barrett is a believer in the “public service model” when it comes to the state archives where “…we’re not nickel and diming everything that we do. It alienates people, it alienates me!” He does, however, find one positive feature being implemented with the business model approach. This approach forces the archives to be efficient.  He explains that agencies with plenty of funding and money get ‘sloppy.’ Informality means that different ideas and goals may or may not get done. The business model approach may not be as friendly, but it certainly gets things done. He commented that in his perfect wold they would have a public service business model because, “Right now we’re losing public service.”


Is there anything specific you’re looking for when hiring for a position in the archives?

            He explained that the big thing he sees is you need to have to have masters. He explained that when you apply for a position at the archives you could have a high school diploma and still do a lot of what they’re doing. You could have bachelors and definitely do what they’re doing.  However, when you are part of a pool of 70 people applying for a position that is as basic as it gets, you’re competing with people with a masters and maybe PhDs. “That’s the economy, and that’s the economy it’s been for 10 years now. It’s just the numbers.”


Any recommendations or advice for a person looking to break into the business?

            He suggests we look for project management positions where you’re working on and creating exhibits for one project. Look for those because the more experience you have the better of you’ll be. Always volunteer. Volunteer at museums, archives, libraries, anything, and get that experience so you can talk about your experience when applying. If you get a chance to work on a project like the Lincoln exhibit as a volunteer then jump on it. “If you’ve been project manager on stuff like that in a couple different states then you show that you’re willing to move around the country and that you can do diverse work, have leadership skills, so that then you’re going to be a strong candidate when a position opens up.”

Barrett then gave me the advice that he said was most influential in his life, “When I was in the 8th grade in my algebra class, of all places, my algebra teacher said, ‘The most important lesson you can learn here, in life, is change and adaptability. You are going to experience so much change in a lifetime that being able to adapt to whatever comes down the road is the most important skill you can developed. And I’ve worked with a lot of people who did not learn that, who did not have that skill, and I don’t work with them anymore. This would have been in the 70’s and look at what I’ve seen since… I just think, thank God she said that to me and thank God I heard it… I just want to pass on this incredible bit of wisdom I got in the 8th grade and that’s adapt, adapt, adapt.”