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«T A A HE MERICAN RCHIVIST Oral History in the Archives: Its Documentary Role in the Twenty-first Century Ellen D. Swain Abstract While many ...»

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Oral History in the Archives:

Its Documentary Role in the

Twenty-first Century

Ellen D. Swain


While many archivists and librarians have celebrated oral history’s documentary potential,

others have questioned its reliance on faulty and subjective memory. The role of archivists as curator of collections or creator of records, an issue that has arisen anew in recent years, is central to this oral history debate. Drawing on fifty years of archival, library, and oral history scholarship, this article examines how the introduction of oral history in archives and libraries has challenged and informed archival theory and practice in the United States. The article argues that oral history’s contribution and impact in the twenty-first century will depend on archivists’ and librarians’ ability and willingness to work together, in collaboration with other disciplines, to document and provide access to our oral heritage in the digital age.

F or nearly a half-century, archivists and librarians have debated the theoretical and practical applications of oral history for archives and research libraries. Libraries first utilized oral sources to “fill in” the historical record in the early 1950s, and by the late 1960s, a handful of articles in the library and archival literature proclaimed its documentary value. In 1968, shortly after the founding of the Oral History Association (OHA), library science professor Martha Jane K. Zachert published her College and Research Libraries article “The Implications of Oral History for Librarians,” to underline the new responsibilities and opportunities facing librarians.1 Although it was not an in-depth or “landmark” study, Zachert’s article was one of the first attempts to outline the ways in which oral history would impact libraries and archives in the coming decades. As such, it provides a useful framework for analyzing and evaluating archival, library, and oral history scholarship on the subject. Zachert’s article also offers a basis for understanding how the role of 1 Martha Jane K. Zachert, “The Implications of Oral History for Librarians,” College and Research Libraries 29 (March 1968): 101–3. Zachert’s work is the only article to appear in C&RL that deals specifically with oral history.

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oral history in archives and libraries was constructed in the past and how it can be viewed today.

Significantly, this investigation reveals that over the past ten years, oral history literature has continued to examine the archivist’s role in oral history while archival and library scholarship has abandoned this crucial discussion for other topics. Oral history continues to be an important research methodology and tapes and transcripts need to be effectively integrated into academic library collections. Archivists and librarians must assume an active role in oral history discourse, collaborate with each other and colleagues in other fields, and be attuned to current scholarship needs if archives and special collections departments are to be viable, utilized research sources in the future.

Historical Background

To understand oral history’s role in the archives and library, it is important to first place it in historical context. Significantly, the origins of oral history in the United States are rooted firmly in archives and libraries. The Columbia University Oral History Research Office, founded in 1948, was one of the first and most notable programs. Dedicated to documenting the “movers and shakers” in society, Columbia and other early programs found little support from skeptical history departments or from archivists who were critical of oral history’s reliance on faulty memory.2 Beginning in the mid-1950s, oral historians promoted oral history’s value for library collections to library and archival audiences with some success.3 Not until the social history movement in the late 1960s and 1970s did oral history become a widespread means to recover “history from the bottom up.” Its earliest use, instead, was as an archival documentation strategy to supplement records of prominent historical figures.4 This archival emphasis—the practical use of oral history to supplement or explain information in existing archival collections—dominated the oral history field in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The OHA, founded in 1967, focused on the archival use of oral history to “build” collections rather than as a historical practice of “reflection upon those documents or speculation on how they might be used to develop new ways to view and do history.”5 Archivists and librarians Ronald J. Grele, “Directions for Oral History in the United States,” in Oral History: An Interdisciplinary

Anthology, 2nd ed., ed. David K. Dunaway and Willa Baum (Walnut Creek, Calif.; London; New Delhi:

Altamira Press, 1996), 64–65.

For example, Vaughn Bornet wrote in 1955 that “a handful of the members of the historical and archival professions are convinced of the value of oral history. If the reminder—the doubters—are to be won over, the reminiscence-manufacturing industry must set and maintain high and uniform standards for its final product.” Vaughn D. Bornet, “Oral History Can Be Worthwhile,” American Archivist 18 (July 1955): 253.

Grele, “Directions for Oral History in the United States,” 65–66.

Grele, “Directions for Oral History in the United States.”

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study of “provenance, evaluation, appraisal, arrangement, access, legal agreements, and ethical guidelines as they pertain to the oral history interview as an original document.”10 Despite SAA’s active response, many archivists remained skeptical of the value of oral history. A 1982 survey found that only 31 percent of 110 randomly selected college and university archivists were responsible for oral history.11 SAA continued its involvement with the practice by sponsoring oral history workshops for its membership and in 1989 by collaborating with the American Historical Association (AHA) and OHA on AHA’s “Statement on Interviewing for Historical Documentation.”12 No doubt the archival presence was responsible for the statement’s stipulation that historians deposit their interviews with a library or archives.

Articles on oral history appeared in the library and archival literature in the 1960s, the 1970s, and in even greater numbers in the 1980s. Authors debated the value of the oral history interview, the appropriateness of creation of oral history interviews by archivists, as well as procedure and use issues. They also analyzed the implications of the new social history movement of the 1970s for archival documentation strategies, emphasizing the need for oral history to “fill in” scholarship gaps.13 Since the early 1990s, however, few archival and library publications in the United States have addressed the role and use of oral history in research institutions. Instead, archivists and sound librarians have discussed oral history in terms of digital management, in the larger context of sound archives. With few exceptions, articles have reported on specific projects in the U.S. and in Records, 1936-[ongoing], Society of American Archivists, UWM Manuscript Collection 172, Golda Meir Library, University Manuscript Collections, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Nicholas C. Burckel and J. Frank Cook, “A Profile of College and University Archives in the United States,” American Archivist 45 (Fall 1982): 420. These survey results provide an interesting contrast to SAA’s 1973 membership survey in which 73 percent believed oral history should be considered a regular archival activity. College and university archivists may have deemed oral history acceptable, but nine years later, most had not integrated oral history into their archival activities.

12 “Statement on Interviewing for Historical Documentation,” Journal of American History 77 (September 1990): 613–14. This statement is an appendum to the American Historical Association’s “Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct.” It was approved May 1989 by the AHA Council.

13 For oral history articles in the 1960s, see for example three essays by Donald Swain “Problems for Practitioners of Oral History” (63–69); Saul Benison “Reflections on Oral History” (71–77); and Gould Colman “Oral History—An Appeal for More Systematic Procedures” (79–83) in American Archivist 28 (January 1965). For articles published in the 1970s, see for example Ronald Filippelli, “Oral History and the Archives,” American Archivist 39 (October 1976): 479–83; and William Moss, “Oral History: An Appreciation” American Archivist 40 (October 1977): 429–39. For articles published in the 1980s, see for example David Lance, “Oral History Archives: Perceptions and Practices,” Oral History 8, no. 2 (Autumn 1980): 59–63; James Fogerty, “Filling the Gap: Oral History in the Archives,” American Archivist 46 (Spring 1983): 148–57; Thomas Carleton, “Videotaped Oral Histories: Problems and Prospects,” American Archivist 47 (Summer 1984): 228–36; William W. Moss and Peter C. Maikana, Archives, Oral History and Oral Tradition: A RAMP Study; Graham Eeles and Jill Kinnear, “Archivists and Oral

Historians: Friends, Strangers, or Enemies?,” Journal of the Society of Archivists 9, no. 4 (October 1988):

188–89; and Dale Treleven, “Oral History and the Archival Community: Common Concerns about Documenting Twentieth-Century Life,” International Journal of Oral History 10 (February 1989): 50–58.

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gaps to make a “creative, intellectual contribution.”18 This argument is part of a larger debate over archivists’ role as curator of materials or as creator of documentation that has taken on new meaning for postmodern theorists in recent years. Over the last decades, one of strongest deterrents to oral history’s acceptance among archivists and special collection librarians has been the idea that they, as neutral, impartial curators of collections, can or should not “create” records. Of course, this neutrality or objectivity is a noble but unattainable goal.

The origins of this aversion to “creating” records are grounded in traditional, twentieth-century archival theory.

Theorists proclaimed that the responsibility to safeguard and uphold the authenticity of “the record” was central to an archivist’s duties. Theory dictated that archivists must maintain “documents as nearly as possible in the state in which [they] received them, without adding or taking away, physically or morally, anything.”19 In addition, they must not allow personal biases or interests to determine what materials they acquire for the archives. As William Moss explained in 1988, when archivists conducted oral history interviews, they participated in and to some extent determined the nature and content of the record produced.20 Many archivists felt they jeopardized their preferred status of neutrality concerning record content.

In the context of these admonitions, archivists debated the appropriateness of their active participation in oral history, both as collector and creator.

Ronald Filippelli, expressing “bewilderment over the intensity of [this] debate,” asserted in 1976 that subject expertise is the key, not whether the interviewer is an archivist or historian.21 In 1981, archivists at the Canadian Oral History Association took up the issue most forcefully. Derek Reimer urged his colleagues to “call yourselves ‘historical researchers’ or ‘cultural conservators’ but don’t lose the opportunity of recording vanishing resources because of some arbitrary linear subdivision of the world of knowledge which says that archivists do not participate in the creation of records.” Reimer insisted that archivists will be known in the future by their collections, not “by the purity of archival theory or the niceness with which we can distinguish between the true work of an archivist as opposed to a collector of oral documents.” Archivists are the most knowledgeable about collection deficiencies and can best fill in gaps.22 Zachert, “The Implications of Oral History for Librarians,” 102.

Hilary Jenkinson, “Reflections of an Archivist,” in Modern Archives Reader: Basic Readings on Archival Theory and Practice, ed. Maygene F. Daniels and Timothy Walch (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Service, 1984), 20.

William W. Moss, “Oral History,” in Managing Archives and Archival Institutions, ed. James Gregory Bradsher (London: Mansell Publishing Limited, 1988), 149.

Ronald L. Filippelli, “Oral History and the Archives,” 480. For a negative view of oral history see Hugh Taylor, “Oral History and Archives: Keynote Speech to the 1976 Canadian Oral History Conference,” Canadian Oral History Association Journal 1 (1975–76): 3.

Derek Reimer, “Oral History and Archives: The Case in Favor,” Canadian Oral History Association Journal 5 (1981–82): 30–33.

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Arguing against archival participation, Jean Dryden responded to Reimer’s address by insisting that active involvement in oral history is a dangerous departure from the traditional role of archivist. Archivists can identify “gaps” in their collection, but they do not have the expertise, the funding, or the time needed to conduct extensive research or anticipate questions of future researchers.

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