By Lopa Banerjee, Contributor
UNO faculty and students may not know about Claudia V. Gallaway, the first graduate of the UNO and the sole graduate in 1911. They may not know the story of a spirited, courageous Holocaust survivor and educator named Bea Karp. They probably don’t know the stories of Native American activist Elsie Harlan Clark or Ruth Diamond, the earliest advocate of modern dance in Omaha.
These women have all been affiliated with UNO and have made great contributions to the university and the communities they served.
It has often been a challenge to uncover the long-forgotten stories of UNO women and the struggles and adversities they faced while trying to attain their goals. Now, anyone can read about their contributions on the Women’s Archive Project (WAP) website, a project directed by Dr. Tammy Kennedy and Dr. Tracy Bridgeford. While many of these women are no longer alive, the WAP allows students involved to “discover buried voices from the past” and showcase those forgotten voices and their stories to a broader public audience on the website (wap.lib.unomaha.edu).
“Most people don’t get the opportunity to snoop through library archives to discover buried voices from the past,” Kennedy said. “Dr. Tracy Bridgeford and I, along with our students, are trying to change that by bringing these stories out of the Criss Library archive and making them available to the public on the Women’s Archive Project website.”
In 2008, when UNO celebrated its centennial, English professor Susan Maher envisioned the Women’s Centennial Archive Project (WCAP). Maher wanted to create a living document that recovered stories and contributions of women associated with UNO. She invited Bridgeford to help design a multimedia website that would serve as a portal into the history of UNO women in the 20th and early 21st centuries.
In 2010, when Kennedy joined the UNO English faculty, she was determined to resurrect the project to continue its progress beyond the centennial celebration.
The new name, Women’s Archive Project, reflects the effort to make the WAP a permanent, interdisciplinary feature of UNO’s archive and to continue the effort to recover UNO-affiliated women’s voices muted across the decades.
Students in Kennedy’s Researching and Writing Women’s Lives course are challenged with the task of identifying one of these lost voices, either dead or alive, “famous” or “ordinary.” Students then go through the process of researching and narrating the woman’s story to be published on the WAP website.
The student’s selection of his or her research subject, Kennedy said, is one of the ways the project illuminates the diversity of experiences of women whose contributions have shaped the community and the university over the course of a century. It is often a complex, intuitive process of recounting and remembering lives from the past and documenting those experiences through narrative. In the process, students learn the essence of critical interviewing skills and archival research techniques to write about real lives and how these lives make a “fascinating entrance” into the history of UNO and Omaha.
Cutting-edge multimedia technology has been instrumental in depicting the unique life stories of women affiliated with the university.
Michael Williams, an intern for Bridgeford, added a unique virtual photo gallery with 3-D animation technology. The animated virtual museum displays over 100 photos spotlighting UNO women, clubs and events, along with candid shots from around campus. The virtual gallery has immense potential in portraying the WAP as not only a vivid historical document, but also as a visual timeline depicting lives of the UNO women and the roles they played in the university’s growth.
Students Nicole White and Jennifer Formo, were equally fascinated about its potential of being a unique look back into UNO’s rich and diverse history. They said that although the process of recovering a UNO woman’s story in the context of the historical past carried an element of awe and adventure, they were moved by the project’s impact on “our shared history.”
Formo, event coordinator of the WAP Premiere, was one of seven featured student speakers at the program on Sept. 14. The event was designed to celebrate the students’ contributions to the WAP over the last four years. The event also highlighted the new WAP website, designed and produced exclusively by students.
To honor the growing number and quality of contributions to the WAP, Kennedy praised students’ efforts before an audience of more than 70 guests, saying how thrilled she was with the prospects of the WAP’s future.
Starting with the WCAP in 2008, the WAP continues to preserve UNO’s diverse, multifaceted histories by showcasing the vast array of women’s stories and experiences. With the premiere event in September, the WAP acknowledged growth of the website and continual upgrades and redesigns needed to better accommodate digital aspects of the project.
“We invited women who have been profiled, donors, sponsors, the UNO Women’s Club members, Gender and Women’s Studies faculty, the English faculty, and key community members, such as women’s organizations or archival librarians at the Douglas County Historical Society and Central High School Archive,” Kennedy said. “The WAP was also featured in Omaha Magazine in September, and we have been working to get more donors to support our efforts.”
The project, currently sponsored by organizations including the Chancellor’s Commission on the Status of Women, College of Arts and Sciences, Yvette Kinney Creative Nonfiction Program Fund, Nebraska Humanities Council, Honors Program, School of Communication, Service Learning Academy, Women’s and Gender Studies Program, and the Writing Center, is an astonishing example of how a virtual archive can work as living history, utilizing the interactivity and accessibility of the Internet.
In the future, Kennedy hopes the project will thrive with generous support of students, sponsors and donors, so the WAP can continue to showcase the unique stories of UNO women.