Lincoln has a long-standing tradition as a music hub, but it is rarely noted in traditional history books, museums or Wikipedia pages. Much of the city's music culture and fanbase derives from the legacy of The Zoo Bar, a tiny blues venue on 14th Street downtown. In conjunction with a University of Nebraska-Lincoln history course, The Zoo Bar's deep roots in Lincoln’s music culture, specifically the blues, is being digitally archived to be remembered forever.
About once a year, UNL offers a history course called History Harvest in which students collect artifacts and stories from people in specific communities in Lincoln or Omaha that they then transfer into the UNL History Harvest digital archives. History Harvest provides an online archive where hundreds of artifacts have been digitized for the general public. Each semester focuses on one specific topic or group of people, and then an event is held where the public can bring their personal artifacts to be uploaded to the archive.
The History Harvest’s Zoo Bar event was held Sunday, March 31.
Dr. Patrick Jones, an associate professor of history and ethnic studies at UNL, said he wanted to create a space for historical items that represent important stories but would not normally make it into archives or museums. He launched History Harvest in 2010 with Dr. William Thomas, a professor of history and a John and Catherine Angle Professor in the Humanities.
“We wanted to engage students in history in some new and innovative ways — and to connect with our local community — that is student-led and community-based,” Jones said.
Some topics in the past have been Omaha’s African American and Italian American communities and Lincoln’s refugee community.
In this semester’s course, students learned about blues music, interviewed Zoo Bar regulars and sought out artifacts such as records or posters from past performances.
The Zoo Bar has been a local landmark in Lincoln since it opened in 1973 and has held performances by famous blues artists such as Magic Slim and Tab Benoit, developing a loyal crowd of blues fans. Jones said the bar’s impact on Lincoln’s music culture made it a fitting and exciting choice for the History Harvest.
“It has a really rich, awesome history, and so I thought it would be a great history to try to get and preserve and share,” Jones said. “It also has a unique community of people, and there's a strong set of people who love the Zoo Bar and go regularly who all have a strong sense of connectivity with each other.”
With their sights set on this semester’s History Harvest and the March 31 event, the class invited people who have a strong connection and passion for The Zoo Bar to bring any items from over the years that tell the stories of The Zoo Bar’s past.
Whitney Rittscher, a junior history and classics and religious studies double major is taking the class and was intrigued by the cultural draw of working with The Zoo Bar. She saw it as a unique opportunity to have a hands-on approach to history.
“One of the big things that drew me into it was dealing with history hands-on, which is something that they prepare you for [as a history major], but it’s not quite in this relevance,” Rittscher said. “As a history major, a lot of what we do is writing and behind-the-scenes research, but this class allows you to use your history knowledge, research and analytical skills and put that to work.”
According to Rittscher, the response from The Zoo Bar community was very positive, and it brought a lot of people together who all shared the same passion for the bar. Around a dozen people came to the event eager to share their artifacts and stories with the students.
“We had such positive feedback from the whole community around The Zoo Bar for weeks in advance because we had to do interviews before it, and they all seemed really excited and passionate about it,” Rittscher said.
People from the community brought in photographs, T-shirts, records, posters and stories from The Zoo Bar’s past, which will now be digitized and held in history on the History Harvest website. According to Rittscher, choosing The Zoo Bar gave her and her classmates a chance to highlight the more relatable everyday events of communities.
“It’s a very small particular community, and that is what is great about the History Harvest is we get to pick a community in Lincoln or Omaha and dive in deep with them and discuss why this place is important,” Rittscher said. “It’s remembering the history that isn’t major events because we have documents from [events] like wars, but this is just everyday stuff that people can relate to.”