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Bringing University History to Life A new online history project gives voice to Rochester’s past. By Kathleen McGarvey

Have you ever wanted to peek behind the scenes of University history? Hear the voices of one-time leaders and alumni who experienced a very different Rochester?

Hear the Voices

The recordings from which these excerpts were drawn can be heard by visiting the Living History Project at

The River Campus Libraries, collaborating with the other campuses, have launched a new project designed to let you do just that. The Living History Project was formally established in 2013, at the suggestion of President Joel Seligman. It’s an effort to make existing oral histories, recorded beginning in the 1960s, easily accessible and to add to them with new interviews.

The site complements the new book about University history, Our Work Is But Begun: A History of the University of Rochester, 1850–2005, by Janice Bullard Pieterse (University of Rochester Press, 2014). While the book offers a formal account of the institution, the living history project “adds a diverse mix of people who can flesh out the history of the University,” says Mary Ann Mavrinac, vice provost and the Andrew H. and Janet Dayton Neilly Dean of River Campus Libraries.

“It’s very individual, very personal,” says Melissa Mead, the John M. and Barbara Keil University Archivist and Rochester Collections Librarian. “A University is made up of its people—and oftentimes it’s how we best respond to our history.”

Paul Burgett ’68E, ’76E (PhD)—vice president, senior advisor to the president, and University dean—has conducted several of the recent interviews. “I believe it is important to our understanding of the history to include the spoken words of those who have had the lived experience at the University, including faculty, alums, friends, trustees,” he says. “Each has his or her own unique story, which taken in aggregate, with the stories of others, provides an exciting and informed human quilt about the University of Rochester.”

The effort “will go on and on and on as there are more people who will share their experiences as staff, faculty, and alumni,” Mavrinac says. “We’re talking not solely to the luminaries, but to everyone—a long-standing staff member, or someone who came here as a student after World War II. It adds such a rich tapestry to the history of the University, which is typically more formal.”

Inclusiveness is critical, says Burgett, a member of the project’s advisory board. “It’s important that our subject pool be representative of the great diversity in the University, so knowing the experiences of women, of people of color, of the young, of the old, of the disabled, of the international population. . . . The challenge, of course, is in there being time and resources enough to do all of these things, because those who are involved have so much on their plates. If we had an army of 20 interviewers, that would be great. But we don’t. So we do as much as we can.”

An anonymous donor has given funds to provide for hiring a researcher and the cost of travel, of transferring recordings to digital formats, and of creating transcripts.

Former University archivist Nancy Ehrich Martin ’65, ’94 (MA) has worked both as an interviewer and an annotator of interviews. “There is a huge amount of closeness to the history of the University that you can’t get any other way. You have the person’s voice and their personality—it’s a prism through which you see the University at that time. The people interviewed in the ’70s were sometimes remembering things in the 1910s, the 1920s—and it truly was a different world.”