About the Williams Center

Mission, History, & Significance

The Williams Center is by far the largest and most comprehensive oral history repository in the state of Louisiana, and one of the largest in the South. The Center, named for the renowned historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar, T. Harry Williams, was founded in 1991 with a three-fold mission:

  1. To document Louisiana culture and history through recorded oral history interviews,
  2. To preserve the oral histories collected and make them available to researchers,
  3. To actively engage in outreach, assisting university and public community members in learning about oral history research, and in creating their own projects.

For the past two decades, the Center has upheld this mandate to document Louisiana's diverse past and culture by preserving sound recordings of interviews with people who experienced history in the making. Our collection consists of over 5,000 hours of interviews on over fifty different topics. While Center staff developed many of the core research projects like University History, Civil Rights, Louisiana Politics, and Military History, a significant number of the Center's unique collections are the result of outreach and collaboration between the Center and community groups, individual scholars and researchers, like-minded organizations, and class projects. The Center has earned a strong reputation for providing interdisciplinary outreach to academic and independent scholars, secondary and higher education professionals, and community groups by providing specialized leadership and educational tools for best practices in the field.

Located on LSU's campus in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the Williams Center is a research department within Louisiana State University Libraries. The Center's mission aligns with the Libraries' core mission that includes creating new knowledge, teaching research skills, and preserving Louisiana's diverse culture.

The Center's outreach and collaborative activities are interdisciplinary and create primary resources that include diverse perspectives. For example, Center collaborations often connect humanities to sciences, like those projects generated by partnerships with Louisiana Sea Grant, the Coastal Wetlands Planning Protection and Restoration Act, the Louisiana AgCenter, and the Bayou Lafourche Oral History Project. Furthermore, due to the unique methodology of oral history that focuses on diverse experiences of everyday people, the Center is able to engage in research projects to cover specialized areas like religion and culture, rural life, women's studies, civil rights, and grassroots movements, as well as topics like architecture, law, education, military history, and politics. In addition, the Center's oral history collection provides essential information about the cultural diversity of Louisiana by documenting African American, Cajun, Latino, and Native American history. Furthermore, the process of creating these primary resources with an emphasis on the ethics of the research partnership naturally involves outreach activities, directly engaging people within these distinct cultural communities to document their own lifeways, histories, and traditions.

What is Oral History?

Oral history is a qualitative method of collecting and preserving unrecorded information about the past that fills gaps in the written record and results in the creation of primary resources. Recorded interviews can replace missing elements that are vital to historical studies. Oral history methodology is based on personal interviewing, suited to understanding meanings, interpretations, relationships, and subjective experiences. There are two basic types of interviews and projects: life narrative/biographical or project-oriented/topical.

Oral history's methodology differs from many other types of interviewing - that is to say all oral histories are interviews, but not all interviews are oral histories. First and foremost, an oral history is a primary resource. An audio or video product is created and is preserved as an original historical document in a repository so that it can be used for further research.

Donald Ritchie, Historian for the U.S. Senate, offers one of the best definitions in his book, Doing Oral History: "Oral History collects memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews. An oral history interview generally consists of a well-prepared interviewer questioning an interviewee and recording their exchange in audio or video format. Recordings of the interview are transcribed, summarized, or indexed and then placed in a library or archives. These interviews may be used for research or excerpted in a publication, radio or video documentary, museum exhibition, dramatization or other form of public presentation. Recordings, transcripts, catalogs, photographs and related documentary materials can also be posted on the Internet. Oral history does not include random taping, such as President Richard Nixon's surreptitious recording of his White House conversations, nor does it refer to recorded speeches, wiretapping, personal diaries on tape, or other sound recordings that lack the dialogue between interviewer and interviewee."

The main components of a legitimate oral history interview are:

  • Paperwork stipulating who owns copyright of the work. This requires agreement from the interviewee, who is, according to copyright law, joint author of the work. Informed consent may also be necessary, depending upon regulations of varying institutions.
  • A well-prepared, trained interviewer recording the questioning of an interviewee to shed light on an historical or cultural phenomena, heretofore under-documented or underrepresented.
  • The recording is audible and preserved in good condition in a repository and available for researchers.

Why Oral History?

Oral histories provide glimpses into the behind-the-scenes workings of significant cultural and historical events and figures. Moreover, oral history lends itself well to documenting those who have been absent from or underrepresented in the written record – African Americans and other minorities, immigrants, members of the working class, women, and other groups outside of the mainstream of American life. The aggregate of their stories and voices provide us with a deeper, more inclusive understanding of our past. It is a method well-suited to the study of the state of Louisiana, which is renowned for its diversity.

In addition to the important data and facts that are collected in this way, tone of voice, accent, and manner of speaking add qualities not conveyed by written words alone. Oral histories enable the researcher to make a very human connection with the subject, literally sharing voices of the people who lived through, shaped, and were shaped by a variety of cultural, historical, and political experiences.

Not only do oral history projects help document underrepresented cultures and phenomena, but they provide communities an opportunity to explore a shared identity and help them to create their own history. If you don't tell your story, who will?

Who is T. Harry Williams?

The name T. Harry Williams conjures up many images for those who knew him. He was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and an outstanding teacher of southern history who had a flair for the dramatic. Williams was also an innovative scholar and a pioneer in the field of oral history. "It's no secret," said T. Harry Williams, "that I am a great believer in oral history. Trained researchers using a tape recorder ought to interview people to get the information that is in their heads and no place else." For the past two decades, the T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History, in keeping with this mandate, has been collecting, preserving, and disseminating the valuable information found in first-person narratives.

Williams was born in Illinois, moved to Wisconsin, and received his Bachelor's Degree in Education from Platteville State Teachers College, Wisconsin. He earned Master's and Doctorate Degrees in History from the University of Wisconsin. He taught history at several universities, the final one being Louisiana State University, where he was a professor from 1941 until 1979. He became a Boyd Professor of History in 1953. In 1979, the LSU Board of Supervisors established the T. Harry Williams Chair of American History. Also that year, the T. Harry Williams Scholarship Fund was created.

Among Williams' many academic honors were Doctor of Law, Northland College (1953); Guggenheim Fellow (1957); Doctor of Letters, Bradley University (1959); Harry S. Truman Award in Civil War History (1964); Harmsworth Professor of American History, Queen's College, Oxford, England (1966-1967); Doctor of Humane Letters, Loyola University (1974); and Doctor of Humane Letters, Tulane University (1979). Williams was President of the Southern Historical Association (1958-1959) and the Organization of American Historians (1972-1973). In 1991, LSU Libraries Special Collections established the T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History to record and preserve the oral history of the university and of Louisiana.

When he began research for his biography of Huey Long, Williams used tape-recorded interviews with both supporters and opponents of the late governor. It is with the oral history techniques developed by Williams that we ask you to turn your attention to remembrances by his former students, friends, and colleagues. The effect that he had on his students and colleagues was long-lasting. Almost every interviewee who discussues Williams tells a similar story about how difficult his classes were to get into and how people would line up outside of the lecture hall just to hear him speak. His colleagues remember him fondly both as a scholar and as a friend.