Sabbatical Project Uses Oral History - by Meg Miner

Sabbatical Project Uses Oral History

Meg Miner, Archivist, Illinois Wesleyan University

A project titled “Portrait of a Collector: A View from the Shelves of Minor Myers, jr.” uses documentary evidence and oral history to close a gap in institutional memory that resulted when Illinois Wesleyan University’s (IWU) 17th president died in office in 2003. Within the library, storytelling about President Myers relates to his involvement in managing library collections. His stated reason for being involved was to increase the quantity of the library’s holdings which in turn was part of his plan to enhance the reputation of the University. He had another reason for being interested in the library: he was a lifelong and earnest bibliophile as evidenced by the growth in his personal collection that stood at 3,000 volumes when he took office in 1989.

Following his death, Myers’ wife asked the Board of Trustees to purchase his book collection and subsequently almost 12,000 items—a four-fold increase in less than 14 years—were transferred into the library’s custody. The author described and organized this collection of books and ephemera; ultimately, the library retained approximately 10% of the collection and auctioned the remainder on September 17, 2005.

In the years that followed, the archivist heard anecdotes from people about how Myers shared his collecting interests with the community. For this project, she hypothesized that the attributes of this particular collector—always acquiring, looking for connections among people and across history—influenced the direction of Illinois Wesleyan University.  By documenting these anecdotes and analyzing how Myer’s interests influenced the people around him, a record of both his life as a collector and his impact will be available in the future.

After three months of oral history collection in 2016, the participants totaled 65 interviews conducted either in person, by Skype, or by phone; 32 anecdotes submitted in writing; and five responses sent by e-mail as a result of direct follow-up questions. Only three of the interviewees requested that their recordings be withheld from future use. One person placed a time limited embargo on his recording that nevertheless makes it possible to release upon request directly to him.

While the initial questions developed for interview participants focused on Myers’ collecting habits, other recollections of Myers as a person and as a leader were often provided.  With the few exceptions noted above, all interviews will be transcribed and made available in their entirety through the University Archives’ Oral History portal ( The archivist and IWU’s Technology Trainer are also exploring workflows for enhancing access using the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS;

Outcomes of this project are an article on storytelling in organizations, an article on implementing OHMS, an essay on Myers’ collecting practices and their influences, a prices realized auction catalog, and a podcast about Myers as a collector containing the voices of selected project contributors. When completed, all project components will be accessible via