The University of Louisiana at Lafayette History Harvest began in 2017 with Liz Skilton, Ph.D., an assistant professor of history, and a wish to catalog local historical disaster events, starting with the Grand 16 shooting. The second harvest would focus on the 2016 Louisiana floods.
No longer confined to old stuffy books, history, and the way historians gather, history looks very different than it did before, keeping up with technology. Recently, the UL Lafayette history department put some of those technological upgrades into the way they gather, or harvest, history.
For each harvesting event, the history department brings a mobile exhibit to an area. Once there, they ask local citizens to contribute their memories to a database to ensure an accurate picture of the disaster is maintained. Although previously these histories would be gathered by hand or by a recorder, technology has allowed the department to collect large amounts of history in a relatively small period.
"We're finding people want to interact and communicate with us in multiple ways," Skilton said. "And a lot of that is because of digital technology. So much like technology shapes the response to that disaster. We're finding that people want to share their stories … they want to share it online and on social media."
With two harvests complete, Skilton is currently heading up a third history harvest entitled "Memories of Hurricane Harvey: Spotlight on Southwest Louisiana." This harvest was made possible by the non-profit Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.
"We also have a website where people can upload their stories directly there," Skilton said.
Though Skilton said a person wanting to tell their story could undoubtedly do so at their mobile exhibit. A form also exists where any citizen from one of the 12 Harvey-affected parishes can upload extra pictures, documents or recordings there on the internet.
"We've had people upload videos, little clips that they've had of different things, photographs, documents even," Skilton said. "Even (material) related to how long it took them to recover, or what they had to do for insurance purposes."
Skilton said many UL Lafayette students contributed to making this work possible, including two undergraduate students who have assisted her with the Hurricane Harvey History Harvest from the beginning.
Mary Catherine Constant and Wesley Brown began their work with the Hurricane Harvey project over the summer of 2019, sifting through the entire exhibit dedicated to the 2016 floods.
According to Constant and Brown, their summer work prepared them for the Hurricane Harvey History Harvest. Now, Brown likens his time harvesting history to a certain kind of scientific method.
"We want to get an accurate representation of people affected,” Brown said. “We have a thing where you can pin where you were when Hurricane Harvey happened. That way, we know that person was there, and they experienced flooding and things like that."
Constant said that after the data is collected, graduate students catalog the data by demographic that they receive before the interview. After, they are all organized, so the next group of researchers who come through can find information quicker.
"I was interviewing this man. He wasn't a part of the Cajun Navy. He was actually from Texas, but he was there, pulling people off their homes,” Constant said. “He said that the water would be up to the top of the second floor of a house. And he was going up there on his boat and like take families and children off the roofs and bring them to shelter. So I think just hearing first-hand how much it affected people and how the community came together — it's powerful."
About 350 people have walked through the exhibit so far, with 40 people giving interviews on their experiences. All data will be collected before December, when Skilton said the department would announce what is to be done with the data, similar to the podcast created from the 2016 flooding disaster.
Regardless of what form the final project takes, all information is transferred to the Center for Louisiana Studies for archiving. From there, people will be able to use the information and see it.
"We found that over the years, technology allows us to document, in different ways, these disasters that we experience." Skilton said, "We want to provide an opportunity to document. Both to share the story verbally, but to also share it digitally."