The history of Special Collections & Archives (SCA) dates back to 1929 when Eastern's Library began talks of creating a Kentucky Room dedicated to preserving Kentucky's historical and cultural narratives. Despite a crashed economy and the onset of the Great Depression, Eastern invested roughly $5,000 (including $300 from the library emergency fund) for its first two purchases from Lexington author and book collector John Wilson Townsend. The acquisition contained over 5,000 items ranging from autographed books to letters and photographs from famous Kentucky authors which came to be known as the John Wilson Townsend Library. The namesake's relevance and impact is still evident in the current designation of the SCA reading room as the Townsend Room.
As Eastern grew, the importance of preserving its own history and managing its records resulted in the hiring of Charles Hay, the first university archivist, in 1976. Hay enthusiastically assumed the task of documenting Eastern's history, as well as procuring other relevant historical materials for the University Archives. The University's first oral history project covering President Robert R. Martin is a prime example of the sort of collection development that Hay pursued.
After years of independent operation, the Townsend Room and University Archives merged in 1991, becoming Special Collections & Archives. However, a major disconnect remained because the Townsend Room was housed within the Crabbe Library and the University Archives was contained within the Cammack Building. In 1995, a renovation of the Crabbe Library allowed the two to come together in their current location. At the same time a small Rare Book Collection was also moved to this space. In 2012, the EKU Oral History Center was revived as a division of Special Collections & Archives, and the Board of Regents named it the William H. Berge Oral History Center for its first director. Now, researchers can easily access and enjoy an array of services, historical resources and primary sources, all in one place.
First directed from 1977 to 1990 by Dr. William H. Berge, the EKU Oral History Center originally resided in the History Department. Focusing on the history and culture of Kentucky and Kentuckians, its purpose was to collect spoken memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through a recorded dialog between an interviewer and an interviewee. From the beginning, the center partnered with University Archives to provide storage for and access to recordings, transcripts, and indexes. In fact, the first interviews at EKU were conducted by University Archivist Charles Hay for the President Robert R. Martin Oral History Project.
Some notable projects completed by Dr. Berge included: Kentucky Newspaper Editors, Malcolm Kilduff, and Company Coal Towns. He also taught a course on oral history, and encouraged the collection of interviews on a wide variety of topics. A few of the regular interviewers for the center included: Todd Moberly, Beckie Denton, and Norma Robinson. Many of the center's oral history projects would not have been completed without grant funding from the Kentucky Oral History Commission (KOHC), which was formed in 1976.
With the retirement of Dr. Berge in 1990, Dr. William E. Ellis of the History Department provided leadership for the center, and served in that role until 1994 when the university cut the center's funding. Despite that loss, interview projects were continued and added to the University Archives. For its part, the University Archives, which by this time was part of the newly-formed Special Collections & Archives (SCA), concerned itself with improving access to the interviews and long-term preservation of the collection.
Toward that effort, a card index was converted to an online list, which in turn became a simple database. The digitization of interviews began through a grant from KOHC in 2009, and the database needed a new platform. Envisioning a robust online presence for researchers to explore the interviews and listen online, archivists Jackie Couture and Debbie Whalen sought to revive the center as a division of SCA. Unlike the previous center, this one would be responsible not only for the role of oral historian in conducting interviews, but also for the role of oral history archivist in providing access to and preserving the collection. In June 2012, the EKU Board of Regents approved the revival and named the center in honor of Dr. Berge and his accomplishments.
In 2015, Neil Kasiak was hired as Oral Historian/Archivist, with the goals of building an online database of oral histories, incorporating existing and new oral history interviews into the curriculum, and collaborating with new project managers to build the collection. These collaborations have resulted in many successful KOHC grant funded projects, such as the Appalachian Horse Project, the Rock Climbing in the Red River Gorge Project and Kentucky School Superintendents Revisited Project. Curriculum-based projects such as Food and Society, Feminisms in Practice, and the Veterans Studies Project have also been very successful. These projects and others have helped grow the collection to over 4,500 interviews.