Peace Corps Community Archive Established at American University
By Guest Contributor on Friday, April 19th, 2013
By Pat Wand (Colombia 1963-65), NPCA Board Member
One could say that the Peace Corps community is coming home — or at least coming home to one of its several homes.
On March 21, 2013 American University (AU) in Washington, D.C. officially launched the Peace Corps Community Archive, whose mission is to:
“collect, exhibit, and provide educational and public programs that document the experiences and impact of individuals who served in the Peace Corps and of individuals and institutions in host countries.”
For many years, AU has preserved the archives of Friends of Colombia and Friends of Nigeria as well as the administrative files of the National Peace Corps Association. Now going forward it is opening its shelves to Volunteers who served in all countries and who wish to make their “correspondence, diaries, films photographs reports, scrapbooks and sound recordings” available to “historians, scholars and students.” The Archive will also “collect organizational records of National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) member groups and oral histories and memoirs of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) and host country nationals.”
Three units of American University support the Peace Corps Community Archive: the Library, the School of International Service and the College of Arts and Sciences.
AU is known for its strong commitment to international relations, so housing Peace Corps-related materials is a natural fit. In 2013, the Peace Corps ranked it second among medium-sized universities for service among graduates and it has consistently been one of the top five Peace Corps Volunteer-producing schools for years. Less well known is that AU’s connection to Peace Corps stretches back 52 years; to a planning conference held there in March 1961 and jointly organized by students from American University and the University of Michigan.
Appropriately incorporated into Peace Corps Week, the launch celebration emphasized the need to preserve documents and record the inevitable stories that emerge when Volunteers live in totally different cultures and work side-by-side with host country nationals. Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) graduate students, faculty, staff and alumni at American University, coordinated by Robert Schlehuber (Ukraine 2009-2011), planned a stimulating and unique symposium with the idea of demonstrating ways to record the Peace Corps experience. Fourteen Returned Volunteers, whose service spanned the early 1960s through 2012, narrated 7-minute slide shows documenting their lives and weaving a web of stories that help comprise the “big story” of Peace Corps.
The Genesis of the Archive
The Peace Corps Community Archive became a reality through the work of many people although one person in particular, Robert Klein (RPCV Ghana I) was recognized as being pivotal.
In the late 1990s, Bob Klein was inspired to initiate an oral history project to record the voices and stories of every member of Ghana I. That intention expanded and Bob began interviewing Volunteers who served in other countries and then started training volunteers to interview each other using widely accepted standards for oral histories. He convinced the John F. Kennedy Library to accept the oral histories as part of its collection. Those oral histories, which he called the RPCV Archive Project now number nearly 400 recordings.
In October 2011, just after the Peace Corps 50th Anniversary celebrations, Bob Klein approached Patricia A. Wand, RPCV Colombia and former University Librarian at American University, to assist him in establishing an archive. He wrote:
Now more than ever we need a Peace Corps Volunteer Archive as a living reminder of what Peace Corps service can mean. At the recent Library of Congress Writers Luncheon, Congressman Sam Farr spoke, promoting the idea of a massive oral history project to preserve the firsthand experiences of those who served as volunteers. The RPCV Archival Project is one model of how to accomplish this.
A PCV (sic) Archive can:
- Organize and preserve RPCV oral history interviews;
- Serve as a clearinghouse to coordinate the preservation of RPCV archival materials in hard copy and digital format.
Two months later, in December 2011, Bob Klein and NPCA Board Member Pat Wand presented a proposal for the Archive to William Mayer, University Librarian at American University, who immediately saw its value and began working toward that end. Bob Klein died in April 2012 but the results of his dream and hard work over many years became tangible on March 21.
As the history of Peace Corps becomes richer and deeper it is essential that these stories be recorded, collected, preserved, organized and made accessible for future generations of students, scholars and the Peace Corps community.
If RPCVs are not quite ready to part with their Peace Corps memorabilia, they may include a codicil in their wills indicating that they want all documents and photos related to their Peace Corps service to be deposited in the Peace Corps Community Archive at American University at the time of their deaths. A simple statement to that effect with their signature and date will suffice.
Before sending material and for additional information contact:
Susan McElrath, University Archivist
American University Library
4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20016-8046
Archives: (202) 885-3256
Susan McElrath: (202) 885-3197
Press release re Peace Corps Community Archive launch: http://www.american.edu/library/news/pcca.cfm
Peace Corps Community Archive website: www.american.edu/library/archives/pcca
Video recording of Symposium: “Waging Peace through a Lifetime of Service,” March 21, 2013
NPCA blog post, July 26, 2011: Preserving Your Peace Corps Memories
Participants in an archive planning workshop hosted by American University Library, July 2012.
- Stephen Angelsmith (Turkmenistan and AU School of International Service)
- Anne Baker (Fiji 1984-87) and representing the National Peace Corps Association)
- Leeanne Dumsmore (School of International Service)
- Susan McElrath, (University Archivist)
- Phyllis Noble (Nigeria 1965-67)
- Georgianna McQuire (Ghana I)
- Gwendolyn Reece (AU Library)
- Joanne Roll (Colombia 1963-65)
- Betsy Sandlin (Robert Klein’s sister)
- Patricia A. Wand (RPCV Colombia 1963-65, AU University Librarian Emerita)
- Arnold Zeitlin (RPCV Ghana I)
During the celebration, the following individuals were acknowledged for their contributions to recording and documenting the Peace Corps legacy:
- Jane Albritton (India 1967-69)
- John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)
- Nancy Davenport, University Librarian, AU
- James Goldgeier, Dean, School of International Service, AU
- William Mayer, Former University Librarian, AU
- Hugh Pickens (Peru 1970–73)
- Peter Starr, Dean, College of Arts and Sciences, AU