The Archive of Immigrant Voices

Recently I sat down with Kate Keane, the Director of University of Maryland’s Center for Global Migration Studies to talk with her about the Center’s Archive of Immigrant Voices.  Established in 2012 to house interviews with immigrants to the United States, the archive currently contains 79 oral history interviews, most of them about an hour in length. Each interview was conducted by an undergraduate student as part of their work in one of two oral history courses offered regularly at the University of Maryland.  One of these courses is always taught by a historian (me!) and the other is taught by a rotating selection of professors from different departments, which so far have included History, American Studies, Sociology and Theater. In both courses, if the narrator agrees to the donation, students provide the Center with both the recording and a transcript of their interview, along with photographs as possible.

Collaborating with professors to ensure a steady stream of students conducting interviews for the archive has been and will remain critical to building up the Archive. Also important is university support which allow interviewers to be as flexible as possible. For example, while most of the interviews are conducted in English, there are sometimes strong reasons for conducting an interview in another language. UMD has an extremely diverse student population, and it is not unusual for a student interviewer to have the ability to do this. However, as we all know, transcribing is extremely taxing and time-consuming, and it would be too much to ask an undergraduate to create transcripts in two languages. When faced with this issue, Keane was able to call on UMD’s School of Languages Transcription and Translation Service for assistance, and thus ensured that both English and Korean transcripts of a recent interview conducted in Korean would go into the archive.

The Archive currently houses interviews with immigrants from 45 different countries and every continent (as well as a migrant from Puerto Rico). While the Archive will accept interviews conducted with immigrants who live anywhere in the United States, the bulk of the interviews are with people who currently reside in the Mid-Atlantic region, particularly the Washington DC Metro Area. The geographic diversity of immigrant origins in the Archive thus reflects the reality of immigration to the DC area, which attracts people from every country imaginable.

With a good body of interviews already in the Archive, and more anticipated, the Center is actively seeking researchers interested in working with the collection. Already on board is a linguist from the University of Michigan doing post-doctoral work that considers how immigrants use the word home in their interviews. UMD’s Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) has begun using the oral histories in mapping projects that employ GIS location services. Keane is particularly interested in attracting historians to work with the Archive, but invites anyone doing research that they feel could benefit from the Archive’s holdings to check out the Center’s website and get in touch!

Anne Spry Rush is a Lecturer in the History Department at the University of Maryland and the OHMAR Secretary.