Every town has a landmark diner, movie theater, school, park, or other legendary spot that holds a place in the minds and memories of local citizens. The intersection of these local spaces and experiences fascinates graduate student Abby Stephens, who is orchestrating a local history project involving West Lafayette citizens.
The West Lafayette Memories Project spun out of an "Archival Theory and Practice" class that Stephens, an American Studies doctoral candidate, took in 2008. Each student identified a collection, organization, or location in the community to view as a place of living history. Stephens chose Bruno's, a pizza restaurant a few blocks off campus, and archived co-owner Orlando Itin's extensive collection of sports memorabilia on its walls.
Over the last three years, students in the class, team-taught by history professor Susan Curtis and English professor Kristina Bross, have expanded on the concept, archiving information related to the city's fire department, Purdue's public radio station, and West Lafayette City Hall. In August 2011, the project became more formalized when Stephens assumed the official title of graduate assistant for the West Lafayette Memories Project and opened an office at the city's public library.
"We're using this year to survey the community and see what's out there, what the needs are, and determine what the residents want to see. Would they like a small museum with exhibits and research space? I'm surveying the community for the temperature for West Lafayette history," Stephens says.
Local history does have an established home in the Tippecanoe County Historical Society, but Stephens hopes the Memories Project will create even more local interest among West Lafayette residents. By housing the project in the city's library, residents can easily drop by to share their stories.
She also is being proactive. Her initial focus on Bruno's expanded to other places connected to food. She polled vendors at the West Lafayette farmers market and arranged an oral history panel on local restaurants that brought community leaders together to share their memories.
Stephens says the goal of the project is to promote historical awareness and the sense of collective history of the community. Curtis and Bross plan to continue their course's ties with the local community by focusing on the connections between campus and city histories.
"University scholars need the community to assemble meaningful historical materials and to make sense of them," Curtis says. "This is an ideal example of engaged research — the co-creation of knowledge by a graduate student and by non-academic members of the community."