From the Oral History Center Director: Looking Back on 2016

Reading through year-end reviews of 2016 is decidedly not a lighthearted pursuit. So many favorite musicians of my, and many other, generations have left us and though we have the gift of their music we also have sadness. Events on the world stage seem to descend only deeper into violence and chaos. And an ugly and contentious election cycle in our country — not to mention the surprise result — have left many fearing for the future of our democracy.

While remaining mindful of past disappointments and future challenges, I think that it is important to recognize achievements, successes, and positive outcomes too, for these sustain us and give us hope. We, at the Oral History Center, want to revisit some of the new and exciting developments of the past year that give us — give me — great optimism going forward into 2017.

As many of you may know the Oral History Center experienced a great generational transition beginning around 2011, with the retirements of our three most senior interviewers, associate director, and director. After many years of rebuilding, in 2016 the office has again built-out to roughly full capacity with the arrival of two additional interviewers: Todd Holmes and Cristina Kim. Joining Shanna Farrell and Paul Burnett (both of whom joined us in 2013), Holmes and Kim hit the ground running and by the end of the year have each conducted substantial life history interviews, played key roles in our Summer Institute and the first season of our new podcast series, and have begun developing what promise to be important new oral history projects.

The four lead interviewers, combined with Rosie the Riveter project interviewer David Dunham and I, conducted approximately 425 hours of interviews in 2016 — very likely a record level of productivity for our office. Each and every hour of interview contains something special and irreplaceable: a first-person account of a lived experience, of disappointments and failures, and of hopes and dreams. Projects completed or begun in 2016 include the Freedom to Marry project; Economist Life Stories; Global Mining and Materials Research; Getty Trust; Rosie the Riveter; and many others. Individual life history interviews were completed with leaders in the fields of environmental regulation, genetics, labor, health systems, music, law, education, philanthropy and community service, and foodways. In 2017 expect to see the release of the Freedom to Marry interviews, more interviews with artists and curators in partnership with the Getty Trust, as well as new interviews on the California Coastal Commission and the emergence of ethnic studies in the United States — to mention just a few areas.

Historic oral history transcripts at the Oral History Center
Historic oral history transcripts at the Oral History Center

The oral historians here at Berkeley have long been productive scholars and authors, publishing magazine articles, journal essays, and books. In 2016, however, we expanded our scholarly engagement activities by producing a podcast series “Tales from the Campanile.” The first season (we hope to produce two seasons annually), “From the Outside In: Women in Politics,” featured six episodes, each running 15-20 minutes in length which looked at a century of women’s role in politics leading up to the historic candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Lead producers Todd Holmes, Shanna Farrell, and Cristina Kim selected audio clips from our amazing interviews with leaders including suffragist Alice Paul, congress member Jeanette Rankin, and California secretary of state March Fong Eu; we were thrilled that Emmy Award-winning journalist Belva Davis agreed to narrate the podcast. For 2017 and beyond we have seasons in the works that will look at the history of the AIDS epidemic and California’s uber issue: water. Stay tuned!

The Center continued our educational offerings with great success. In March we hosted our annual “Introduction to Oral History Workshop” and in August our “Advanced Oral History Summer Institute.” A diverse and engaging group of participants attended both trainings and, as always, we were impressed by the enthusiasm and intelligence of the attendees, which we take as a harbinger of great oral history projects to come! We look forward to our 2017 Introductory Workshop, which will be held on Saturday February 25th and our Summer Institute, scheduled for the week of August 7th.

In addition to the new oral history projects, podcast seasons, and educational offerings, we are looking forward to getting our latest partnership with the National Park Service off the ground in 2017. David Dunham wrote about this in the previous newsletter, but, in brief, it entails nothing less than an expansion and improvement of the interview search on our website as well as, ultimately, streaming of complete oral histories online — a real first for the Center.

Finally, I want to conclude by offering my gratitude to the many people who make all of this work possible. Given that all of our interviews must receive external funding (the university does not pay the salaries of the interviewers, transcription, or equipment, for example), I want to thank all of the individuals and institutions who have invested in us over the last year. We strive to always improve the quality of our work and we very much hope that our dedication to the craft of oral history shows. We also invite everyone interested in supporting our work to assist us by making a tax-deductible donation to the Oral History Center. We are also always interested in hearing from our supporters about ideas for new projects and new interviews, and how we might go about finding sponsors for those projects.

I also want to thank my regular staff — Julie Allen, Paul Burnett, David Dunham, Shanna Farrell, Todd Holmes, Cristina Kim, and Linda Norton — for their essential contributions; I also extend my gratitude to our interns, student employees, emeritus interviewers, and Library colleagues. Last but not least, my heartfelt appreciation goes to our interviewees. We have never paid an interviewee for the time (sometimes numbering dozens of hours) that they give to our oral history projects.

Thank you and we look forward to staying in touch throughout 2017!


Martin Meeker 

Charles B. Faulhaber Director

Oral History Center