Civil Rights Oral History

Case Study: The Civil Rights Oral History Survey Project

by Timothy Lloyd

A critical first step in any research project, and an excellent means for gaining at least a beginning form of intellectual control over one’s subject, is to survey the research that has already been done on the topic. This report summarizes a recent national effort of this kind, the Civil Rights Oral History Survey Project (CROHSP), carried out by an electronically-networked team of four scholar-researchers whose work has created what will eventually be an online information resource for scholars and the public—another articulation of “oral history in the digital age.”

In February 2010, the American Folklore Society (AFS), the U.S.-based professional society for the field of folklore studies, received a contract from the American Folklife Center (AFC) at the Library of Congress to manage the CROHSP.  The project had its origins the previous year, when U.S. Congress passed Public Law 111-19, known as the “Civil Rights History Project Act of 2009.” This act instructed the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) to, “undertake a project to collect oral histories of individuals from the Civil Rights Movement so future generations will be able to learn of their struggle and sacrifice through primary-source, eyewitness material.”

The act did not specify a methodology for carrying out this project or a division of labor between the Library of Congress (which had designed the AFC as the library division to be involved in the project) and the Smithsonian.  After several months of meetings, the two agencies determined that before new Civil Rights Movement-related oral history interviews were done, a major national effort was necessary to comprehend the (apparently vast but still incomplete) extent of such work that had already been accomplished.  They determined that the library would undertake a survey to discover what oral histories had already been recorded and the location and condition of those collections and supplementary material.  The baseline provided by this work could then help the Smithsonian to determine priorities for the additional interviewing it would undertake to round out the historical record. The AFC then sought outside contractors, eventually selecting AFS, to fulfill its responsibilities.  Seen in this context, the CROHSP was designed to inform the AFC and the NMAAHC about extant repositories and collections of Civil Rights Movement oral histories, to provide public information about such collections, and to help identify potential interviewees as a foundation for future work to collect new oral histories of participants in the movement.

In early 2010, the AFS carried out a national search to recruit its research team by soliciting applications in the fields of archival and library science, folklore, history, and oral history.  This search resulted in 110 applications from across these fields and from around the country. The process of application review and interviewing that followed led to the formation of the final team of four young scholars: Andrew Salinas, a librarian and archivist, with folklore training, on the staff of the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University; Will Griffin and Elizabeth Gritter, two University of North Carolina historians with special expertise in oral history and in the Civil Rights Movement; and Danille Christensen, an Indiana University folklorist with specialties in ethnographic project planning and management and database work.

At the same time, AFS subcontracted with Dr. Kim Christen and a Washington State University-based team to develop a customized MySQL database into which research team members would store and search for information about the oral history collections and repositories they identified. To meet the needs of the project, this database needed to have multiple metadata fields, a straightforward graphic user interface, allow multiple simultaneous users and various levels of user and administrative access, and be able to be exported to a future public site, since later in the project the database will be made available as an information tool for researchers and the public. The database development team provided hands-on training to the research team members and AFS and AFC staff in late May 2010.

During May 2010—and especially during a three-day, in-person meeting at the Library of Congress—research team members, along with the staffs of the AFS and the AFC, developed a research plan and a methodology for the survey.  The team divided the country geographically—the team investigated potential archival holdings in all 50 states and the District of Columbia—and individual researchers were responsible for researching all categories of repositories within their assigned regions. The team also created a project wiki to serve as a day-to-day communications medium, message board, and shared space for posting queries, suggestions, tips, and useful documents– whether discovered during research or created by team members.

Throughout the summer of 2010, team members gathered information about repositories and collections nationwide; identified, wherever possible, Civil Rights Movement participants whose experiences had never been documented or needed further documentation; and entered all such information into the database.  They carried out this work by building upon initial Internet research with follow-up e-mail exchanges and phone conversations with repository staff.  From August to November 2010, they continued this work, gathered and input item-level information on selected collections, and made on-site visits to a number of specifically targeted repositories to refine their initial survey findings.

It is worth emphasizing here that the four team members spent only five days working together in person: the three-day Washington, D.C. meeting in late May previously mentioned and a two-day gathering as part of the American Folklore Society’s annual meeting in October 2010.  However, team members stayed in touch on a daily, and sometimes hourly, basis via the project wiki, e-mails, and monthly conference calls (which included AFS and AFC staff).

The database populated by the team’s efforts now contains records for more than 900 collections (most of which include multiple, and in some cases dozens of, individual interviews) held by 466 repositories in 49 states and the District of Columbia.  (Only North Dakota seems to lack such collections.)  The database indexes these collections by almost 1,800 subject headings, which are based on the standard Library of Congress subject headings for later interoperability.  In addition, the team identified 117 individuals who played significant roles in the Civil Rights Movement in their communities but who had not yet been interviewed.

The Library of Congress and Smithsonian are now in possession of the project database and, in the coming months, a version of it with a friendly and accessible graphic user interface will be made available online to scholars and to the public.  We expect that this resource will be enriched over time by data from later Smithsonian Institution interviewing and by possible additional repository and collection research, including information submitted by repositories that see that their collections are missing from the resource or not adequately described.

At the conclusion of the project at the end of 2010, project researchers and AFS staff also collaborated on the preparation of a final report to the Library of Congress.  This report contains sections on each team member’s regionally-defined research, including site visits and essays on four overarching topics:

  1. An overall characterization of the nation’s archival holdings of oral history recordings related to the Civil Rights Movement, in terms of coverage, access, and preservation status
  2.  A description and evaluation of the project’s research plan and methodology, including the original division of labor along geographical lines, the remote but networked process by which the team carried out its research, and the various electronic means through which team members communicated with one another
  3.  An evaluation of the benefits to repositories and to the communities they serve, and of researchers’ work on this project, including remote research and site visits
  4.  Recommendations for future work, including interviewing, any second-phase research along the lines already established in the project, and related projects

Team members have also created e-copies of all essential material from the project wiki and shared them with the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian.

This project has demonstrated that with a concerted, highly-networked effort, it is possible for a distributed team of researchers to identify existing archival resources in oral history on a topic of national importance and at a national scale.  The work of the project team (including the AFC and AFS staffs and the database development team), and the database and report that serve as the tangible outcomes of the project, can serve as models for future efforts, including national undertakings and those of smaller extent.

Citation for Article


Lloyd, T. (2012). Case study: the civil rights oral history survey project. In D. Boyd, S. Cohen, B. Rakerd, & D. Rehberger (Eds.), Oral history in the digital age. Institute of Library and Museum Services. Retrieved from


Lloyd, Timothy. “Case Study: The Civil Rights Oral History Survey Project,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, edited by Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2012,

This is a production of the Oral History in the Digital Age Project ( sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).  Please consult for information on rights, licensing, and citation. 

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