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Louisiana State University


Sea Grant Capturing Coastal Zone Oral Histories


The Louisiana Sea Grant College Program, housed at LSU, has engaged in a multi-tiered project to recognize and record the lives, livelihoods and voices of residents from Louisiana’s threatened coastal communities before they are lost.

The project began more than four years ago when LSG produced the Web film series “Shrimp Tales” (www.seagrantfish.lsu.edu/people/shrimptales.htm), featuring photographs and interviews with fishermen discussing the changes and challenges of their profession. “Reflections on Chandeleur” (www.laseagrant.org/lighthouse/index.html), completed in 2009, documents the island chain’s lighthouse and landscape through donated photographs and interviews with anglers, scientists and naturalists. Now, a more aggressive approach to collecting and sharing oral histories is taking place.

“We’re putting more resources into the project and covering more of the Louisiana coast,” said Roy Kron, LSG outreach and communications director. “One day, the people who experienced the coastal zone lifestyle as we know it will be gone. And it’s likely some of our coastal communities will be gone. It is imperative that traditional knowledge in these towns and villages be captured so that the memories of their custodians can be preserved for current and future generations.”

LSG, in partnership with the Louisiana State Museum, helped Earl Robicheaux, producer of “Losing Louisiana: Oral Histories of Coastal Land Loss,” “Voices of the Atchafalaya” and “Atchafalaya Soundscapes,” produce a new collection, called “Grand Isle Diaries.”

Robicheaux captured interviews with Grand Isle residents recounting memories about their community. Once transcripts of the interviews are complete, the audio and text will be posted online. But what appears on LSG’s Web site now – www.laseagrant.org/comm/diaries.htm – is a “soundscape.”

“It basically takes the hours of recordings and condenses them into an hour-long story about Grand Isle’s founding and history up through recent hurricanes,” said Robicheaux. “It doesn’t matter if the listener is from Louisiana or not, they’ll understand the importance of Grand Isle after listening.”

Full versions of all the materials, transcripts and the original audio tapes will be archived and made available at LSU’s Hill Memorial Library.

“This, and all the oral histories collected, is a long-term project,” said Kron. “The value of the transcripts can’t be underestimated. Transcribing is one of the most labor-intensive parts of the process, but it’s one of the most valuable. Listening to 10 hours of audio takes 10 hours, but reading the transcript of 10 hours of audio takes substantially less time. For researchers and others who want to mine these histories, the text is critical.”

Another segment of the project involves oral histories focused on shrimping, land holding companies, cypress harvesting and the oyster and cattle industries of Louisiana’s coastal communities. With the support of LSG, recently retired research professor Don Davis of LSU and Carl Brasseaux with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette have undertaken the work.

“There are so many doors that open up once you get started,” said Davis. “You might be talking to someone about shrimping and that leads you to the topic of shrimp drying platforms. Then you start talking about Chinese and Filipino immigrant involvement in shrimp drying – which has never been formally documented, to my knowledge. That takes you down another path. It almost is endless.”

Brasseaux and Davis have already recorded dozens of hours of audio and video interviews and tens of thousands of images they’ve scanned and stored. All their work also will be available at Hill Memorial Library.

Excerpts from a number of these oral histories will be turned into Web films, podcasts and electronic video kiosks in museums across the state.

 

Ashley Berthelot | Editor | Office of Communications & University Relations
March 2010