Archivist tells history of Hershey

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As students listened to Pamela Whitenack, director of the Hershey Community Archives, they popped the famous tiny chocolate kisses into their mouths.

The oral history archivist spoke at the School of Information on Tuesday evening for Archives Week, sponsored by the UT chapter of the Society of American Archivists.

“It’s about the everyday lives that are impacted by archives,” said Jan O’Donnell, an information studies graduate student. “Archives assist us in preserving and protecting our personal rights. It sounds political, but it’s really apolitical.”

Whitenack took the audience through a brief history of Milton Hershey’s life with a picture slideshow, starting with the initial failure of his business and ending with his success. Hershey created company communities in Hershey, Penn., with parks, pools, zoos and places for people to live where they work, Whitenack said.

“Oral history is a learning experience,” she said. “You have to be a good listener because it’s not about you. It’s about someone else’s story. An oral historian learns about past events and understands the biases of the narrator.”

Whitenack also gave small anecdotes from several interviews that she’s conducted with past factory workers. One story was about a 17-year-old boy who worked for Hershey in 1944. He said as a chocolate scrape boy, he saw a little man with a wide mustache come up to him and ask him how work was going. He later found from his boss that it was Hershey himself, who greeted the workers.

“How else would you know this story?” Whitenack said. “They come from memories from people he knew. It paints such a vivid picture of Hershey and the community.”

Although Whitenack has interviewed many people since 1989, she said it may be difficult to get people to talk about their memories.

“Sometimes it takes some marketing and persuasion to get people who worked for Hershey to talk,” Whitenack said. “They think, ‘I didn’t do anything of interest. Why would you want my story?’”

Kathleen Joyce, an information studies graduate student, said that she never thought about company communities, such as Hershey’s.

“I kept thinking in my head, ‘What an ego this guy must have had,’ but he’s obviously really benevolent,” she said. “I thought it was interesting that people had that much initiative and think of that much of their own perspective.”

Joyce said she had a project on digital library software and did research on the Hershey website.