For me, the standout memory of the United States Bicentennial Celebration on July 4, 1976, is the beauty of an international fleet of tall-masted sailing ships cutting through the water of New York harbor, their snowy white sails billowing in the wind. As I watched the celebration on television from my home in Kansas City, Mo., my chest swelled with pride in our country and in my ancestors, who fought for its independence and then made their way west to create communities in its vast wilderness.
Other United States residents had similar feelings during the time around our Bicentennial. Communities across the nation each found their own way to celebrate this milestone. One way that Salina chose to celebrate was by forming a Bicentennial Oral History Committee that would identify elderly residents who had stories to tell about the history of our community. In the period around our country’s 200th birthday, members of this committee fanned out across the area with cassette tape recorders and made their way to homes and eldercare facilities to record the stories. After they were recorded, they were housed at Salina Public Library for safekeeping, and here they have remained for over 40 years.
In 2016, Salina Public Library began a new oral history initiative called StoryCatchers, intended to record the stories of residents of Salina and Saline County. After recording several StoryCatchers stories, the Library took on another initiative in 2018, with the assistance of Humanities Kansas, Kansas Stories of the Vietnam War. Library staff recorded three stories of local veterans of the Vietnam Conflict. Both the StoryCatchers stories and the Kansas Stories of the Vietnam War recordings have been archived by the library, and also made available to the public on its website.
During the process of carrying out these initiatives, staff rediscovered the cassette tape recordings of oral histories done as a part of the Bicentennial celebration. They also discovered other recordings of local history programs and events that had been made over the years since the Bicentennial. Staff digitized one of the oral histories, told by a local resident named Raymond Hagler, loaded it on the library’s YouTube channel and put a link to it on our website, along with the other recordings we had posted. We were interested in digitizing all of the old cassette tapes, but since it is a time-consuming process, we did not pursue doing so at that time.
In 2019, staff became aware of a Federal grant administered through the Kansas Historical Society for the purpose of digitizing analog material so that it could be made available on the Internet. We applied for and received this grant. With the grand funds, we contracted with a qualified individual who made copies of 100 old cassette recordings, transferring them to new cassettes for preservation purposes. In the process of doing so, we discovered that 10 of the old cassettes were broken. Staff at the Kansas Historical Society kindly offered to repair these tapes. The individual we contracted with then listened to each recording and entered information describing the recording in a spreadsheet that is available via the library website. Anyone who is interested can now access the spreadsheet to see the topics covered by the recordings. If they would like to listen to a particular recording of interest, they can come to the library to listen to that tape.
The work done as a result of the 2019 grant was in preparation for the next step, to be taken in 2020. The library plans to pursue digitizing the recordings to make them available online. Stay tuned for updates over the course of the year.
The old Bicentennial oral history recordings vary in quality of sound and content, but many offer fascinating glimpses into the history of Salina and Saline County. They offer eyewitness accounts of people who lived that history, some going back as far as the late 1800s. We are lucky to have these recordings and owe a debt of gratitude to the Salina citizens who conceived of the idea as a way to celebrate our country’s Bicentennial. They have given us a priceless gift through their efforts.