In Conversation With… Megan Harris at the Library of Congress
This month’s FWW Centenary Partnership ‘In Conversation With’ caught up with Megan Harris, the senior reference specialist for the Veterans History Project (VHP), which is part of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Established in 2000, the Veterans History Project collects, preserves and makes accessible the stories of America’s war veterans, by asking the general public to conduct oral history interviews with them and collect original primary source materials relating to their service, and then to donate these items to the Library of Congress.
Tell us about your role.
I work on the last part of VHP’s mission, that is, I help to make our collections accessible by coordinating reference use of the over 100,000 collections that make up VHP’s archive. For the LC’s World War I exhibit, “Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences in WWI” I recommended a selection of VHP collections for use in the exhibit. While all of our collections chronicle the individual narrative of war, in proposing material for inclusion in the exhibit, I focused on items that provided a unique glimpse into what that particular veteran experienced during service: what was seen, felt and heard (in some cases, even what was smelled). As well, I wanted to demonstrate how VHP’s collections tell the story of World War I through a variety of different formats, ranging from personal diaries and correspondence to scrapbooks and oral history interviews.
In addition to suggesting VHP materials for inclusion in the current exhibition, in 2014, I curated an online presentation—what we call a “web feature”—on World War I that can be found on VHP’s website.
What are your organization’s plans for the centenary?
VHP is honored to be included in the Library-wide programming that Ryan described that will take place around “Echoes of the Great War.” In addition, beginning on Memorial Day, 2017, we will release the first of a three-part online presentation on the VHP website that will link a larger group of our VHP collections to the broader themes of the exhibit, allowing viewers to further explore our World War I collections within the context of “Echoes of the Great War.”
What does the First World War Centenary Partnership mean to you?
Given the indelible and worldwide impact of the war, it seems only fitting that the observation of the centenary be done collaboratively and on a global scale. To reiterate Ryan’s points, the First World War Centenary Partnership offers the chance for cross-cultural engagement and the exchange of ideas and historical and archival resources relating to a shared history.
What do you want people to know about the First World War and why?
The war, as Ryan said, reshaped the world politically, economically, and geographically—and it also reshaped individual lives. For veterans who took part in the Great War—whether they served as soldiers, nurses, clerks, ambulance drivers, or in myriad other roles—life after service would never be the same. While World War I may sometimes feel like part of the distant past, in reading through World War I-era diaries and letters, and in listening to veterans’ oral histories, we’re reminded not only of the individuality of veterans’ experiences, but also of their universality. Just as veterans of more recent conflicts have experienced, the war disrupted the lives of those who participated in it in unimaginable and unforgettable ways.
What does the centenary mean to you?
Commemorating the 100th anniversary of America’s entrance into World War I provides an opportunity not only to recognize the historic changes wrought by the war, but also to acknowledge the sacrifices of those who fought. For the Veterans History Project, we hope that this commemoration spurs the descendants of World War I veterans to honor their family members by donating original diaries, letters, photographs, military papers, and scrapbooks to the Library of Congress, so that their stories are preserved for future generations.