Eighteen academics from around the world are coming to Gainesville to gain a deeper understanding of how U.S. foreign policy is created and enacted

Above: Paul Ortiz has become the new director for the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program

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Building a Bridge of Communication

Paul Ortiz Takes Reins of UF’s Oral History

Modern communication is so complex that it has been described as a wall of noise. Paul Ortiz aims to cut through that noise.

As the new director for the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida, Ortiz sees its collection and ongoing projects as a way to make history more intimate and personal.

“People are surprised to hear that the university wants to hear what they have to say.” Ortiz says. “In many ways, oral history is the most democratic of the academic disciplines. It relies on the outside world and builds bridges to the community.”

Oral histories are becoming increasingly more visible as an academic field. Oral testimonies played a major role in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committee, which served to help acknowledge the effects of apartheid on the society of the country. Oral histories have also served as evidence in war crimes and genocide trials in Central America and Eastern Europe. The UF College of Nursing uses interviews of women in the health professions to help prepare their students for what they will face in the workplace.

Ortiz said that oral history records points of view that are not normally found in the public record and preserves them for posterity. By documenting this record, our understanding of what it was like to experience historical events is made more complete.

“Our job in the Oral History Program is to document the state of Florida and by extension the nation. This is a rapidly changing state – there are communities coming into existence almost on a weekly basis, but at the same time, there are communities that are aging and passing on.”

Ortiz is no stranger to the oral history program, as he has been a frequent visitor to the UF campus since the summer of 1996. As a reporter for a college radio program at Evergreen State College, Ortiz began interviewing labor activists at events and rallies. This experience led him to graduate school at Duke University, where he worked on “Remembering Jim Crow,” an oral history documentary accounting the experiences of black Southerners during segregation. While exploring the oral history archives at UF for this project, Ortiz met Samuel Proctor, UF’s first oral historian, and many of the key players in the project’s history, who served as mentors during his fellowship. He went on to receive a Ph.D. from Duke in History.

“In many ways, I feel like I am not starting at square one.”

Ortiz is proud of the program’s current project to digitize its collection and the implications it has for its value as a tool to both academicians and the public.

“It’s a revolution in oral history,” he says. “Historians feel they are giving voice to their collections rather than simply preserving them.”

In the past, analog recordings took months to transcribe and the end results were stored in archives that required researchers and the public to visit in order to access. Now, digital recorders allow for quicker transcription and the content can be placed on the Internet, making it accessible across the world.

This is especially important to linguists and anthropologists, who are more interested in the audio recordings so they can observe the changes in speech patterns and use of language over time.

Ortiz looks forward to developing larger, community-driven efforts to present the project’s collections to the public. In November, the program will release a film that details the experience of four American soldiers who were taken prisoner in the Pacific Theatre. Following the film, the program will work with the Matheson Museum and the Alachua County Veterans Services to capture the experiences of local World War II veterans.

The program also is beginning several new projects throughout the state, including documenting the histories of smaller Florida towns and their business districts, as well as the black communities of Gainesville and their experiences in living through segregation and the civil rights movement.

UF history professor Bob Zieger also will collaborate with the project to begin interviewing people in targeted occupations such as farm workers and longshoreman, as well as university personnel.

Other projects will look at the experiences of Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party members during the fight for civil rights in the 1960s, the social impact of NASA on Florida, and the histories of people involved in water management issues and sugar cultivation. This last project will serve as the cornerstone of future SPOHP programming that will allow the public to engage in this issue on a personal level and to make informed decisions.

“Oral history isn’t just about the past and present,” Ortiz states. “It’s also very much about the future.”



Paul Ortiz, 352-392-7168, portiz@ufl.edu


Jeff Stevens, 352-846-2032, jstevens@ufl.edu

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