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The SlackWater journals, produced by St. Mary’s College of Maryland, have explored themes and issues that have shaped St. Mary’s County, ranging from the rise of Lexington Park to life on St. George Island to the displacement of farmers at Cedar Point to make way for Patuxent River Naval Air Station.

The project has amassed a rich collection of oral history starting in 1984 — people telling stories of their own experiences and memories along the way as part of the Southern Maryland Documentation Project developed by Andrea Hammer, a former professor of English at the college. Now, some of the histories and essays from the six printed SlackWater journals are online for the public to peruse at www.smcm.edu/slackwater.

The first SlackWater journal was published in the spring of 1998 and explored life on St. George Island, once a community of watermen. The last journal came out in the spring of 2009, called “The Instant City,” about Lexington Park.

Today, the future of SlackWater is uncertain. But the archives room in Calvert Hall on the campus is not going away, said Julia King, project director and associate professor of anthropology. An addition to grant funding, “we live off the sale of the journal,” she said. “We’re cross-disciplinary — no department owns us.”

“There’s freedom to it, but there’s no natural advocate for your existence,” said Katherine Ryner, librarian and archivist at St. Mary’s College.

The college re-evaluated its sponsorship of the Governor’s Cup, an annual sailboat race, River Concert Series and the publishing of SlackWater about two years ago.

“SlackWater is a teeny little drop in the bucket compared to those,” Ryner said. “It’s totally an academic program.” The Governor’s Cup makes a profit now, according to college officials, and the River Concert Series’ budget is being revised to cost the college less.

Through the years SlackWater has engaged St. Mary’s College students in collecting the oral histories. “Our students learn about this community and they embrace it,” King said. SlackWater provides for “a wonderful diplomatic work, a place of conversation,” she said.

“There are so many stories yet to be captured,” Ryner said. “If the SlackWater Center continues, that would be part of the work.”

Work began on a seventh volume under the working title of “Rights of Way,” to focus on development in St. Mary’s, but it hasn’t been published.

About 1,000 copies of the recent editions of the journal were published, King said, down from 2,500 of earlier volumes. Publication costs were around $10,000, although the fourth volume cost $22,000.

The journals were funded by a $150,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, but that money is now gone. Sales from journals keep some money coming in. They are sold at the college bookstore and the bookstore’s website at www.smcmbooks.com. In fiscal 2011, sales brought in $778.

Now, there are selections online about how the Gov. Thomas Johnson Memorial Bridge, linking Calvert and St. Mary’s counties, came to be, and a sample of the political climate in St. Mary’s in the 1950s, when the Dorsey family indicted The Enterprise on formal criminal charges for editorial criticism.

Erin Ryan, SlackWater researcher and content manager, said of the new website, “We’re just putting in a place where someone can look at it for five minutes and move on with their day.”

The SlackWater archives has about 550 oral histories, Ryner said, and 435 of them are online in some form on the separate archives web page at www.smcm.edu/archives, said archivist Kent Randall.

“Nothing like this exists in Southern Maryland outside of St. Mary’s College,” Ryan said.

St. Mary’s County residents were interviewed by college students in cultural journalism classes, King said. “Students are very much part of this,” she said. The last class was held in the fall of 2010 and the next class is scheduled for this fall.

“A lot of our students do topics on the local area,” Ryner said, for classes on English, history or political science.

Joseph Urgo, president of St. Mary’s College, said of SlackWater, “As president I support the endeavor. I’m very much interested in seeing it succeed. It’s important locally and it’s important nationally.”

The question now is whether SlackWater will continue as a printed journal or online, he said. “That is all new territory,” he said.

jbabcock@somdnews.com