Great stories that are hard to find

Oral history archives exist in many forms and many places. There are miles of audio taped interviews and reams of laboriously typed transcripts from those interviews. Most of these marvelous collections are useless to the average person because they are not accessible. Story Chip started with the simple idea that the technology now exists to make oral history as accessible as an episode of a network sitcom. The more stories and archives become available, the more history is available to the curious.

Eisenhower Roped!
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Photo by National Park Service

Since we have just experienced another presidential inauguration, lets focus on one of the presidential libraries. You hear about these as each president leaves office and decides on a location for the archive of presidential records as part of the public record for future research and administered by the National Archives. Dwight Eisenhower's library is located in Abilene, Kansas, where he was raised and, like most presidential libraries, it contains an amazing amount of material about the man and his time in office. It also contains an impressive collection of oral history interviews, a small sample of which can be viewed on line.

To maintain perspective, Eisenhower was president before the Department of Defense developed the first computer network. Air Force One had propellers. Telephones were all connected to land lines and had rotary dials. For any of these interviews to be available on line indicates the amount of work involved in maintaining any archive in a form that can be made accessible. The Eisenhower Library collection of interviews is typical of many that can be found all over the country. The collections began as effort to use audio recording techniques in creating a record of the voices and sounds of history. As audio has moved from analog to digital recording and the physical size of the medium has decreased, the effort has been to find ways to create digital versions so that they can be more widely available.

The oral histories in Abilene contain more than serious discussion of Eisenhower in war, politics and foreign affairs. It is not surprising to find delightful insights into the man and his family. One story told by White House speech writer, John Bird, reminds everyone that presidential candidates are not immune to the demands of family life. Bird was meeting with Eisenhower and another writer on a Sunday morning about the text of an upcoming speech. They had been working for a short while when Mamie Eisenhower interrupted to announce that it was time to go to church services. The General started to explain that he might need to skip church only to have Mamie cut him off with “Well, if that's the way you feel about it!” before she hurried out. Bird reports Eisenhower got an uncomfortable look, stood and said, “That's all boys.”

Barbara Eisenhower, the wife of Dwight and Mamie's son John, described the difficulties of raising the four presidential grandchildren in Washington. She eventually moved to the family farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to provide the family a quieter life, only to have the quiet of the farm interrupted by visiting heads of state. She describes how the children were all given small red stars by Nikita Krushchev and the innocence of youth not being overwhelmed by power. When President Charles De Gaulle of France visited Gettysburg, the youngest of the grandchildren asked him why he wore such thick glasses. De Gaulle's answer, “I have very bad eyes. Poor me.”

This is just a sample of the richness that is out there in oral history collections all over the world. The collection at the Eisenhower Library is typical in that is partially available on line but in a limited version. The text cannot be searched and delightful stories like these will be missed by many readers who do not take the time read the thousands of pages of transcripts. By including this description of these two stories, they can now be found by search engines. People looking for information on John Bird or Barbara Eisenhower will now find a reference and a link to the material in Abilene.

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