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Digitizing Native American oral histories

University of Utah J. Willard Marriott Library receives grant to digitize Native American oral history collection.

Photo credit: Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library

The University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library is helping to digitize the oral histories of Native Americans collected during the 1960s and 1970s. On Feb. 9, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation announced that it has granted approximately $1.6 million to The Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums (ATALM) and to seven universities across the U.S., with $200,000 coming to the Marriott Library.

The funding will support a major project to amplify Indigenous voices, bringing renewed attention and resources to an effort centered at the University of Utah half a century ago. Through the grant, library faculty and staff in the Special Collections Division will preserve the original reel-to-reel tapes containing interviews with Native Americans conducted in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Additionally, staff will use new technologies to index and transcribe these interviews, enhancing and expanding access to these important histories.

In 1966, the University of Utah’s American West Center, under the guidance of C. Gregory Crampton with the assistance of Director of Field Operations Floyd A. O’Neil, embarked on a five-year project funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to document the history of Indigenous peoples. The center conducted 2,146 hours of interviews with over 992 American Indian peoples and individuals closely associated with Natives in the Southwest, the Upper Colorado Plateau and the Great Basin. Approximately 39,932 pages of transcripts were produced and they are now housed in Special Collections at the Marriott Library.

“With this funding, we’ll now be able to move this important work forward,” explains Gregory Thompson, Associate Dean for Special Collections at the Marriott Library. “It’s very exciting to envision the end product—seeing these oral histories preserved digitally and made more accessible to Native communities, tribal colleges and the public.”

Library staff will proceed with an initial assessment, examining the media for preservation needs and associated digitization requirements. The project team will review existing transcripts to produce an accurate count of pages, determine additional translations and/or transcripts yet to be created and collaborate on a platform that will provide researchers with enhanced search tools.

The library’s IT staff will employ machine learning tools and workflows to assist archivists in promoting optimal public access and discovery. Based on an earlier model established with the Utah American Indian Digital Archive, staff will work with tribal leadership to approve use and create curricular resources from the collection. The final product will include a website to support the collection, and social networking will be used to enhance access to the primary resources. The project will be overseen by the ATALM.

“It’s wonderful to think about these oral histories becoming available digitally,” said Alberta Comer, dean of libraries. “It will allow for additional access to these culturally significant stories, which we are so fortunate to have and preserve in our collections.”

About the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation
The mission of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation is to improve the quality of people’s lives through grants supporting the performing arts, environmental conservation, child well-being and medical research, and through preservation of the cultural and environmental legacy of Doris Duke’s properties. The mission of the foundation’s Child Well-being Program is to promote children’s healthy development and protect them from abuse and neglect. To that end, DDCF takes a funding approach that centers on intergenerational work that bolsters culturally, geographically and locally relevant programs with and for communities to foster the long-term well-being of families. To learn more, visit