Expertise as a Social Endeavor: Learning from Oral History

H. Anthony Ruckel, environmental lawyer and former president of the Sierra Club, at his home in Denver, Colorado during his oral history interview in September 2019.
H. Anthony Ruckel, environmental lawyer and former president of the Sierra Club, at his home in Denver, Colorado during his oral history interview in September 2019.

Our narrators at the Oral History Center are often experts in their chosen fields of engagement—perhaps as a preeminent scientist, a pioneering lawyer, an acclaimed author, or an outstanding executive. These accomplished narrators cultivated their particular expertise throughout their lives, often in dedication to creating new knowledge or perhaps by revealing new ways of orchestrating and operating in the world. In American culture, we’re often encouraged to imagine these experts as singular actors, lone wolves who separated themselves from the pack to achieve their individual successes. Occasionally, that’s true. For some narrators, we could be forgiven for considering their advanced scientific knowledge or their expertise in jurisprudence as singular, sovereign, sui generis, and almost abstract. And perhaps the standard oral history interview format — with its focus on an individual recounting their particular experience — lends itself to seeing these experts as independent actors, perhaps even separate from society. However, in my experience this past year, my oral history interviews with experts have emphasized how human connections and deeply personal interactions provided the firm bedrock for these experts’ intellectual advancements and accomplishments.

Alexis T. Bell, Professor of Chemical Engineering at UC Berkeley circa 1990.
Alexis T. Bell, Professor of Chemical Engineering at UC Berkeley circa 1990.

Throughout 2019 and into the start of 2020, I had the honor of completing in-depth oral history  interviews with several highly accomplished experts. These experts included the following people in order of when we completed their final interview session: Michael R. Peevey, an entrepreneur and former president of the California Public Utilities Commission; Alexis T. Bell, an internationally renowned scientist in UC Berkeley’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering; Michael R. Schilling, an analytical chemist and head of Materials Characterization at the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles; Robert Praetzel, a lawyer and conservationist whose legal battles helped preserve the Marin Headlands that are now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area; Nancy Donnelly Praetzel, a graduate of UC Berkeley in 1953 who worked in the early years of the commercial airline industry; Samuel Barondes, a medically trained scientist who helped pioneer the field of biological psychiatry; H. Anthony Ruckel, a pioneer of environmental law who later served as president of the Sierra Club; Lawrence D. Downing, a lawyer and environmentalist who also became president of the Sierra Club; and John Briscoe, an internationally recognized trial lawyer with numerous cases before the US Supreme Court, as well as a published poet, historian, and restauranteur. Throughout 2019 and into 2020, my time with these experts occurred across forty-five separate interview sessions that recorded over 110 hours of oral history.

Lawrence Downing, former president of the Sierra Club, delivering a talk at the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in 1988.
Lawrence Downing, former president of the Sierra Club, delivering a talk at the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in 1988.

When I met these experts to conduct their oral histories, I frequently had two sets of realizations.First, absolutely, this individual is an expert and many of their accomplishments are exceptional. Yet, I also realized that their expertise was rarely something they framed as an individual accomplishment. The classic lone-wolf narrative of success simply did not align with the stories they shared about themselves. When these experts and I spoke by phone, when we planned together how to record their life narrative, when we sat face-to-face during recorded interview sessions, and when I listened closely to their stories, instead of hearing tales of purely individual achievement, I heard them share various ways their expertise was cultivated socially with the profound support or influence of others—dear friends, mentors, teachers, rivals, loved ones. Yes, these experts are all individuals with unique stories and perspectives to share; and at the same time, the cultivation of their expertise and their experiences as experts are extremely social, interpersonal, and sometimes intimate.

Sam Barondes, MD, in his laboratory at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in 1969.
Sam Barondes, MD, in his laboratory at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in 1969.

In commemoration of conducting their oral history interviews this past year, here are a few ways in which these narrators described the development of their expertise and successes as socially constructed endeavors:

Samuel Barondes formed life-long friendships with outstanding researchers and future Nobel-laureates at the National Institutes of Health. In his oral history, Barondes explained how his personal relationships helped launch his research career, where he applied the techniques of molecular biology to help establish the new field of biological psychiatry, which conceptualized mental illnesses as physical brain disorders requiring a multilevel approach ranging from genetic to psychosocial mechanisms.

Alexis T. Bell became an internationally recognized expert on heterogeneous catalysis, yet his initial research focused on plasma chemistry, not catalysis. Bell explained how, in the early 1970s, support from Gene Petersen, an older faculty member in chemical engineering, as well as collaborations with a graduate student named Ed Force, both played key roles in helping launch Bell’s now-storied career in catalysis research.

John Briscoe, Bay Area lawyer, poet, historian, and restaurateur.
John Briscoe, Bay Area lawyer, poet, historian, and restaurateur.

John Briscoe has argued legal cases before the California Supreme Court, the United States Supreme Court, and the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. Briscoe credits numerous mentors that became dear friends who helped advance his career, including legal legends like Philip C. Jessup, Stefan A. Reisenfeld, and perhaps most importantly Louis F. Claiborne. Briscoe and Clairborne met as rivals arguing on opposing sides in the US Supreme Court before developing a deep friendship in which they later became law partners as well as godparents to each other’s children.

Lawrence D. Downing’s leadership in the Sierra Club included working with his best friend and fellow Club officer Denny Shaffer to help establish leadership opportunities for other volunteers, as with their advocacy of the Club’s Grassroots Effectiveness Program in the 1980s. Downing also formed international friendships with founders of the John Muir Trust in Scotland, and together they protected Scottish wildlands while promoting the preservationist legacy of Sierra Club founder John Muir, who was born in Scotland.

Michael Peevey (front right) meeting with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003.

Michael R. Peevey forged strong social connections and collaborations throughout his career in labor economics, in government relations, in growing California’s energy industry, and while regulating it. As president of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), Peevey teamed with Republican and Democratic governors as well as members of the “Energy Principles Group”—made up of the CPUC, the California Energy Commision, the California Independent System Operator, and the California Air Resources Board chaired by Peevey’s friend Mary Nichols—to help make California a world leader in confronting climate change.

Nancy Donnelly Praetzel has deep family roots in the Bay Area that extend at least to 1893 when her grandfather, Ernest Clayton, arrived from England. In the late 1930s through early 1950s, Nancy Praetzel and her sister Genie hiked through Marin County with their grandfather, who would then paint pictures of flowers that the girls collected. In 2013, a family collaboration between Nancy, Genie, and Nancy’s daughter Annie rediscovered and promoted Ernest Clayton’s wildflower paintings so that others could enjoy these family heirlooms depicting California’s fragile beauty.

 Robert Praetzel and Nancy Donnelly Praetzel hiking in Marin County, California.
Robert Praetzel and Nancy Donnelly Praetzel hiking in Marin County, California.

Robert Praetzel’s legal career ran the gambit from estate planning to defending protestors against logging old growth redwoods to winning the case that finally stopped the Marincello development project in Marin County. Praetzel credits his early legal training to exceptional professors in the “Sixty Five Club” at UC Hastings College of Law but most especially to Wallace “Wally” Myers, an experienced lawyer in Marin County who guided Praetzel how to build a successful and eclectic career.

Tony Ruckel won his first major environmental case in 1969, establishing an important legal precedent that ultimately enabled the designation and preservation of vast wilderness tracts across the United States. Ruckel recalled, “There wasn’t any guidance. There weren’t any directions. We couldn’t go to a casebook, or open a volume and say, ‘Hey, this is authority for what we’re trying to do.’” As a result, Ruckel and other Sierra Club pioneers of environmental law relied on each other to develop and expand their expertise.

Michael R. Schilling standing next to a gas chromatography/mass spectrometry instrument in the Materials Characterization laboratory at the Getty Conservation Institute in 2019.
Michael R. Schilling standing next to a gas chromatography/mass spectrometry instrument in the Materials Characterization laboratory at the Getty Conservation Institute in 2019.

Michael Schilling applies his chemical-analysis expertise to extensive collaborations with art curators and art conservators around the world. Understanding the surface chemistry of art materials, as well as how and why the artist created their art, are essential for devising safe and ethical treatments to conserve or restore art. “You need all of that knowledge,” Schilling explained, “to really tell the entire story of an object or an artifact,” and combining that knowledge requires teamwork.

All the expert oral history narrators I recorded this past year repeatedly emphasized the importance of their interpersonal relationships and collaborations in their own accomplishments. Their own stories about creating new knowledge and achieving great successes reiterate how knowledge, as well as material things, are the product of historical events, social forces, and ideologies. These narrator’s stories encourage us to understand the construction and application of expertise as a deeply social endeavor. Thank you to all the narrators listed above—as well as those from years past and those we’ll interview in the future—for sharing their expertise and for collaborating with all of us at the Oral History Center.

— Roger Eardley-Pryor, PhD

Oral History Year in Review: Lessons I’ve Learned

In my years working as an oral historian, I’ve come to learn that the most important skill I have in my professional toolbelt is humility. Even after years of study and completing interview-specific research, I know that in any given oral history, I am never the expert in the room. In recording life histories with narrators, I always walk away with new information and fresh perspectives. Oral history folks call this “sharing authority,” but I also like to think about it as an opportunity for personal growth. And part of this growth requires jumping into new subjects and interview situations that challenge me.

One project that continues to challenge and delight me is the J. Paul Getty Trust Oral History Project. I have been working on this project since I joined the Oral History Center (OHC) in 2018, interviewing employees and trustees about the organization’s important contributions to the arts. Also in 2018, the partnership between the Getty Trust and the OHC expanded in order to document the history of prominent African American artists as part of the Getty Research Institute’s (GRI) African American Art History Initiative. Between the two subject areas, the Getty Trust Project represents most of the interviews I have conducted over the last year.

I love that the Getty Trust Project has prompted me to use my background in museums and art history, sometimes forcing me to literally dust off old textbooks. Even so, these interviews have taken me outside my personal art historical comfort zone of Renaissance Italy (I once took an entire course on the works of Michelangelo!), and introduced me to fields from medieval Flemish illuminated manuscripts to twentieth-century American video and performance art. This introduction to various art history specialities has required much study, but also humility in knowing when to defer to the expert.

In the case of the GRI’s African American Art History Initiative, I have had the pleasure to work with one such expert as a co-interviewer: art historian and University of California, Irvine professor Bridget R. Cooks. Cooks has been a delightful addition to the team and a wonderful resource about the artists we interview together. Her academic work in display and criticism added crucial framing to each artist’s story, and her interest in and respect for the people we interviewed shone through every oral history, creating positive experiences for all.

However, approaching these interviews with two interviewers has challenged me as an oral historian. Typically, it is the job of one interviewer to direct an oral history and help guide narrators through the discussion. I.e. Should I ask a follow-up question here or move on? How much time should we spend on this one topic? But working with two interviewers means I am not the sole person in control of the oral history, even when working off the same interview outline. At any given time, one interviewer might want to leave a topic, while another wants to ask more questions.

In order to alleviate some of this confusion, Cooks and I have had to not only build rapport with narrators, but also with each other. And after conducting several interviews together, we have worked out our own system of how to communicate during oral histories – non verbally or with sticky notes – and in how to collaborate in preparing interview outlines. For instance, before I approached a narrator for a pre-interview conversation, Cooks and I had conversations about why the individual was chosen to participate in the project, what themes we hoped to address in the oral history, and what resources I as the non-expert should consult. After completing the pre-interview with the narrator, I used that discussion to build out the interview outline, which I shared with Cooks. We used a Google Docs file to have a back-and-forth about interview structure, language to use, and even subjects to avoid or emphasize. As we decided Cooks should take the lead in these oral histories, this early collaboration was key to their success.

While working on the GRI’s African American Art History Initiative, I have also been challenged to better center the underrepresented voices in these oral histories. In a project that in part seeks to investigate race and power in the art world, this was especially important for me to get right. After all, I’m a white woman who works for an elite university – UC Berkeley – and such institutions have sometimes silenced the contributions of African Americans. In order to combat this historical power dynamic, I privileged extensive pre-interview conversations with narrators about what they wanted to discuss, including the potential to break from the way art historians, critics, or journalists have previously interpreted their lives or work. This is a meaningful practice for any oral history, but these interviews taught me to be acutely sensitive in helping individuals narrate their life stories in the ways that they prefer. 

Navigating all these issues in interviews from both subject areas in the Getty Trust Project has challenged me to be a better and more flexible interviewer, and to appreciate the humility required along the way. I hope you enjoy learning from the interviews in this project as much as I have!

Here some finalized Getty Trust interviews I have conducted over the last year:

Kathleen Dardes

Kenneth Hamma

Mark Leonard

Richard Mayhew

Howardena Pindell

Yvonne Szafran

Here are some other Getty Trust interviews I have conducted that you can to look forward to in the coming months:

David Driskell

Charles Gaines

Thomas Kren

Joyce Hill Stoner

Other non-Getty interviews I’ve conducted in the past year:

Susan GriffinSLATE

Mary Hughes- Bay Area Women in Politics

Julianne MorrisSLATE

Zachary Wasserman- Law and Jurisprudence Individual Interviews


Presenting the Oral History Center Class of 2020

 transcripts on shelves
Oral History Center transcripts

At the conclusion of every academic year, the Oral History Center staff takes a moment to pause, reflect on the interviews completed over the previous year, and offer gratitude to those individuals who volunteered to be interviewed. The names below constitute the Oral History Class of 2020. Please join us in offering heartfelt thanks and congratulations for their contributions!

We would also like to take this time to thank our student employees, undergraduate research apprentices, and library interns. It was a unique semester, topping off a busy and productive year, and they continued to come through for us, as they always do. We rely on this team for work that is critical to our operations: research, interview support, and curriculum development; video editing; writing and editing of abstracts, frontmatter, and transcripts; and more. They’ve even produced articles and oral history performances to share our work with wider audiences. We couldn’t do it without them!

The Oral History Center Class of 2020

Individual Interviews

Robert L. Allen 

Bruce Ames

Samuel Barondes 

Alexis T. Bell 

Robert Birgeneau

John Briscoe

Willie Brown

George Miller 

Michael R. Peevey

Nancy Donnelly Praetzel 

Robert Praetzel

John Prausnitz 

Zack Wasserman

Bay Area Women in Politics

Mary Hughes 

California State Archives

Jerry Brown 

Chicano/a Studies

Vicki L. Ruiz 

East Bay Regional Park District

Glenn Adams

Ron Batteate

Kathy Gleason 

Raili Glenn 

Brian Holt 

Diane Lando

Mary Lentzner

John Lytle

Beverly Marshall

Rev. Diana McDaniel 

Roy Peach

Janet Wright 

Economist Life Stories

George Tolley 

Getty Trust

Peter Bradley

Kathleen Dardes 

David Driskell

Melvin Edwards

Charles Gaines 

Kenneth Hamma 

Thomas Kren

David Lamelas

Mark Leonard 

Richard Mayhew

Howardena Pindell 

Michael R. Schilling 

Joyce Hill Stoner

Yvonne Szafran 

Global Mining

Bob Kendrick 

Napa Valley Vintners

David Duncan

Paula Kornell

David Pearson

Linda Reiff

Emma Swain

SF Opera

Kip Cranna 

David Gockley

Sierra Club

Lawrence Downing 

Aaron Mair

Anthony Ruckel


Susan Griffin 

Julianne Morris

Yale Agrarian Studies

Marvel “Kay” Mansfield 

Alan Mikail

Paul Sabin

Ian Shapiro

Helen F. Siu 

Elisabeth Jean Wood 

Thank You

Student Employees 

Max Afifi

Gurshaant Bassi

Yarelly Bonilla-Leon

Katherine Chen

Jordan Harris

Abigail Jaquez

Nidah Khalid 

Ashley Sangyou Kim

Devin Lizardi

JD Mireles

Tasnima Naoshin

Ricky Noel

Lydia Qu

Deborah Qu

Lauren Sheehan-Clark

Librarian Interns

Jennifer Burkhard

Charissa Fitzpatrick 

Undergraduate Research Apprentices 

Corina (Mei) Chen

Nika Esmailizadeh

Evgenia Galstyan

Ella Griffith

Caitlin Iswono

Miranda Jiang

Emily Keats

Esther Khan

Emily Lempko

Atmika Pai

Samantha Ready 

Kendall Stevens

Real Voices in History

by Ricky J. Noel

We asked our awardee of the Carmel and Howard Friesen Prize in Oral History Research, Ricky Noel, to share how he found the oral histories he used, and his approach to incorporating them in his research paper. Read Oral History Center Director Martin Meeker’s award announcement. And hats off to Ricky! 

My paper would not have been nearly as thorough if I hadn’t found these oral histories. 

When I began research for my term paper I did not initially think to look in the Oral History Center’s archives for my primary sources. My class was centered on U.S. and Middle East relations and I had chosen oil as the foundation of my paper. Despite being familiar with the OHC collections through my library work, I didn’t think that their archives would have much that wasn’t U.S. centric.   

I started with some general search terms and quickly realized that the results were plentiful but not necessarily related to my topic. It was easy to skim through the search results and identify what was relevant, but nothing initially stood out to me. There was however an oral history collection I found in the “Projects” section of the OHC website under Commerce and Industry: “Health and Disease in Saudi Arabia: The ARAMCO Experience 1940s–1990s.” Aramco happened to be one of the major oil companies discussed in my sections, and healthcare was an interesting perspective with which to approach the assignment.

Searching through an oral history may seem a bit daunting at first; the Aramco volumes were each roughly 700 pages long. However, the Health and Disease volume was available digitally in the archives and had drop down menus for each section and interviewee, which made it much easier to search for information related to my specific thesis, without me having to read through the entire collection. 

I used this collection as the foundation for my paper by incorporating the actual voices of the interviewees and how they viewed their experiences in the company. I then applied outside secondary and primary sources to build my argument, as well as context. What I aimed for was to use the actual interviewees in the oral history (with quotes, paraphrasing) as a way to build an individualized view of how they viewed their work and applied it to the broader themes I had outlined in my thesis. My paper would not have been nearly as thorough if I hadn’t found these oral histories. The OHC is an incredibly useful source for researchers and I encourage anyone to learn more about oral histories and how they can be used in one’s projects. I will say that first person voices enliven history and the OHC has plenty of them available to use. 

Finally I would like to thank the Friesens for this wonderful prize and for providing additional focus on the resources of the Oral History Center for scholarly research. 

Ricky J. Noel is starting his final year at Berkeley. He is majoring in history with a Latin American concentration.  

Episode 6 of the Oral History Center’s Special Season of the “Berkeley Remix” Podcast


Shanna Farrell:

Hello and welcome to The Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Founded in 1954, the Center records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world. 

Lately, things have been challenging and uncertain. We’re enduring an order to shelter-in-place, trying to read the news, but not too much, and prioritize self-care. Like many of you, we’re in need of some relief.

So, we’d like to provide you with some. Episodes in this series, which we’re calling “Coronavirus Relief,” may sound different from those we’ve produced in the past, that tell narrative stories drawing from our collection of oral histories. But like many of you, we at the Oral History Center are in need of a break.

We’ll be adding some new episodes in this Coronavirus Relief series with stories from the field, things that have been on our mind, interviews that have been helping us get through, and find small moments of happiness.

Episode 6

Amanda Tewes:

Hello, everyone! This is Amanda Tewes.

I was an avid podcast listener even before we all started sheltering in place. These days I’ve doubled down. But instead of listening on my commute, I catch up with episodes during my daily walks. And I’ve been sharing some of my favorite podcasts dealing with history, memory, and archival audio on the Oral History Center blog. 

Today I’m going to tell you about a new podcast I’ve been listening to called Wind of Change, which was recently featured on the blog. You’re going to want to buckle up for this wild ride.

German heavy metal meets Cold War intrigue. If you’re looking for a fun listen during shelter-in-place, I highly recommend the podcast Wind of Change!

Following a rumor that the German band the Scorpions’ 1990 hit song “Wind of Change” was actually written by the CIA as Cold War propaganda, investigative reporter Patrick Radden Keefe turned this long-form piece into an eight-part podcast series documenting the song’s influence on politics and popular culture, as well as its potential connection to American clandestine operations. Throughout, Keefe toys with the tension as to whether or not this kind of CIA involvement in songwriting is likely. After listening, my takeaway is that it’s just wild enough to be true.

Many Americans haven’t even heard of the Scorpions. And if you’ve heard of them at all, it’s due to their song “Rock You Like a Hurricane.” You know the one. 

But this German band that sings in English has diehard fans all over Europe and Asia. Formed in 1965 in Hanover, Germany, three of the five band members have been playing together since 1978. And they continue to tour internationally.

And what makes the song “Wind of Change” so fascinating is its resonance with the zeitgeist of 1990. The song was supposedly written after the band played in Moscow in 1989 and was released shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

For many, the song represents the “change” happening across Europe that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. But as Keefe points out, “Wind of Change” isn’t just the soundtrack to the end of the Cold War, but also a song with modern resonance. When he saw the Scorpions live in Kiev, Ukraine, alongside huge crowds, Keefe was reminded that the country was actually still at war with Russia, trying to maintain its post-Cold War independence. 

For Ukranians at least, “Wind of Change” is not just nostalgia, but a sort of call to arms. 

Keefe’s previous work inlcudes his 2019 book Say Nothing: The True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, which the Oral History Center chose as its inaugural book club pick. (Make sure to check out that conversation!) In Say Nothing, Keefe explores the challenges of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, alongside the murder of Jean McConville and the Boston College Belfast Project oral histories. In Wind of Change, Keefe encounters similar challenges working with former spies as he did with former revolutionaries in Ireland: lies and obfuscation. 

The delight of listening to this story in a podcast format is the ability to hear the song itself, the enthusiasm from live Scorpions audiences, archival and new interviews, and to provide some (but not enough for their taste) anonymity for former clandestine officers. But Wind of Change offers more than just great audio, it also takes the listener on a journey into how to investigate a thirty-year-old story, following oddball leads – even to a G.I. Joe convention – and invites skepticism about what information to actually believe. Indeed, the podcast also questions the nature of storytelling around this rumor and its own role in continuing the myth making around the CIA. But Keefe also wonders: how do you uncover something that (if true) was among the top CIA secrets during the Cold War? As an oral historian, I would add that these events have also been diluted by memory and time, and those who can speak to the true origins of “Wind of Change” may no longer be able to do so.

Part cultural history and part investigation into Cold War operation, Wind of Change also documents the CIA’s other attempts at cultural influence. From Louis Armstrong to Nina Simone to Doctor Zhivago, Keefe reiterates the CIA’s long history of using popular culture to convey the principles of Western democracy and undermine communism. Further, Keefe points to the very nature of rock and roll as ripe for use as propaganda: the genre was effectively banned in the USSR, so the act of listening to the music itself was a proxy for political rebellion.

The podcast Wind of Change is not just a fun listen about a campy band and Cold War CIA operations, but also a compelling story and a great distraction. Listen to all eight episodes of Wind of Change right now on Spotify.

You’ve got the song stuck in your head now, don’t you?

Stay safe, everyone. Until next time!


Thanks for listening to The Berkeley Remix. We’ll catch up with you next time. And in the meantime, from all of us here at the Oral History Center, we wish you our best.

This episode includes music by the Scorpions and Paul Burnett.


The Meaning of Taking Responsibility

These times pose great challenges for us as individuals and as a nation. We are being called upon to look beyond our own narrow interests and to make changes in our behavior to keep ourselves and others safe. In reflecting on my interviews over the past year, most of which are not yet publicly available, I see people who have identified problems and engaged with them directly. I see people having hard conversations, which includes taking some degree of responsibility, either personally or institutionally, for something that has gone wrong, or that has been going wrong for quite some time. I see people who act in accordance with their values.

In the San Francisco Opera project, I see Dramaturg Emeritus Kip Cranna and former General Director David Gockley having difficult conversations about budgets and staffing during periods of crisis, which, in the arts, is always a relative term. I see former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau spending a lifetime advocating for the excluded and disadvantaged, and taking criticism after making difficult administrative decisions. I see Susan Graham—one of the first professors of computer science at UC Berkeley—participating in the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology that was established during the Obama Administration, which recently warned the federal government of the urgent need to replenish the national stockpile of personal protective equipment that had nearly been depleted after the H1N1 pandemic. And although I did not conduct the interview with nurse administrator Cliff Morrison, I felt close to his story, as it features prominently in the podcast I worked on about the early years of the AIDS epidemic. After spending a career caring for people living with AIDS, Morrison is currently participating in a study of the long-term effects of COVID-19, having contracted the disease while performing similar acts of service in this latest pandemic. In Cliff’s story, he took the stepaudacious for the early 1980sof asking patients what they needed and providing it for them, overriding an established hierarchy in the hospital by doing so. Although he was not the first to suggest patient-centered care, his act of courage was an important catalyst for the development of the “San Francisco Model” of nursing care that has since become a standard around the world. 

But one of the interviews that really stays with me is with Bob Kendrick, who had a 60-year career in the mining industry. He tells a story of a mine accident that happened while he was the superintendent. What he relays in the story—and the fact of his telling it—is an example of taking responsibility that I take to heart.


And finally, there’s the oral history of George Leitmann, an engineering science professor at UC Berkeley who returned to Europe and risked his life to fight the Nazis and to make the world a better place.

In recent months, we have all been reminded, again, of the call to respect one another and to act to reduce harm to others, whether this involves simple acts of observing public health recommendations or speaking out and acting against organized discrimination, implicit bias in our own work, and systemic problems with police brutality against African Americans.  Many of the oral histories listed below are examples of people who have spent their lives serving some idea of the greater good. I am grateful to all of my narrators this past year for reinforcing the importance of stepping up and taking responsibility for the world we live in, and the world we want to live in.

This year, we celebrate the completion or near-completion of the following interviews:

Bob Kendrick – Global Mining and Materials Research

George Leitmann – University History

John Prausnitz – University History

Bruce Ames – University History

Robert Birgeneau – University History

Susan Graham – University History

David Gockley – San Francisco Opera

Kip Cranna – San Francisco Opera

George Tolley – Economist Life Stories




Perseverance Against the Odds: UC Berkeley Professors Natalie Zemon Davis and Elizabeth Malozemoff

by Deborah Qu

Twenty-twenty has proven itself to be a challenging year, starting with the spring semester at UC Berkeley suddenly moving online to accommodate for the shelter-in-place order during a worldwide pandemic. Stressed, demotivated, and anxious, many of us students had to balance school on top of financial, familial, mental health, and other issues. Needless to say, I was extremely touched by the flexibility and continued commitment that many of my professors exhibited this semester. Twenty-twenty is also the 150th year of the University of California opening its doors to women, and I am lucky to be part of a project of the Oral History Center to identify all the interviews of UC-related women in its collection. While doing this research, I found myself especially interested in the stories of UC Berkeley women faculty. Many of these women were pioneers in their own fields at the time, or pursued their passion for learning despite great adversity.

The oral history of historian Natalie Zemon Davis reminded me that what is first seen as unconventional or disadvantageous can sometimes actually be an opportunity. As the only woman in a department of men, she used her position to include more units focused on women in history and expanded gender studies classes at UC Berkeley. Professor Elizabeth Malozemoff reminded me that learning is a valuable treasure and that pursuing education could continue at any age. Going back to school and earning her degrees at Cal, she rebuilt her life with such an unbroken positive attitude after leaving her home in Russia because of the chaos from the Bolshevik Revolution. Reading about their life experiences not only made me proud to be a Golden Bear, but also gave me encouragement and a sense of hopefulness for the future.

Natalie Zemon Davis

Natalie Zemon Davis
Natalie Zemon Davis

Professor Natalie Zemon Davis is a social and cultural historian who specializes in Early Modern History. In 1968, she arrived at UC Berkeley as a visiting professor and the only woman in the History Department at the time. She attained full professorship later in 1971. In addition to Berkeley, she has taught at Brown University, the University of Toronto, and Princeton University. In her interview conducted by the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library in 2003, Professor Davis recounts the difficulties attaining equality as a woman in a male-dominated field. This, in turn, sparked an interest in teaching history with a focus on women.

From the start, Davis did the unconventional. She chose to go into graduate school while also being married, which were seen as two distinct and diverging pathways for women in the 1950s. She recalls in her oral history interview that while her teachers were “not optimistic about women marrying and having children and having a career, because they had taken other paths,” Davis was not interested in following norms. Her marriage was founded on “egalitarian ideals.” She was one of the very few female students studying archival social history. Although the professors treated her seriously, she admitted that there was a difference in social attitude and treatment, stating “they just didn’t think about what it might be like to be a woman student.” But her interest in history meant more to her than adhering to the status quo. She remembers, “there was no way I was going to be stopped….I loved my work so much.”

Instead of allowing the challenges of being one of the only women to overwhelm her, it actually sparked an interest to bring a greater emphasis on the perspective of women into the historical discourse. Working with female graduate students in 1966 at the University of Toronto, Davis studied the experiences of women with children working toward their Ph.D., hoping to raise awareness to daycare needs. She was one of the first to hold undergraduate economic history classes with a focus on women “as central characters,” by adding topics regarding women poverty and labor services. Her integrity behind her courses stood out; she taught what she thought was important and interesting without expecting that it would lead to recurring courses. At UC Berkeley, Professor Davis taught the Reformation course, “Society and the Sexes in Early Modern Europe,” which looked at the likeness and differences between genders, garnering attention for the expanding field of gender studies. Professor Davis was involved in the Academic Senate Committee on the Status of Women, an initiative committed to hiring more women in academic departments.

While Davis’s accomplishments already make her story noteworthy, her confident attitude to pursue her passion was what really left a strong impression on me. As someone interested in pursuing a career in academia but also sometimes racked with self doubt about my ability, I admired the simplicity in her love of history and gender studies. And I certainly felt pride for UC Berkeley when she praised the institution for its “open” environment, which she felt gave her a space to experiment with understanding history and culture through the perspective of women.

Elizabeth Malozemoff

Elizabeth Malozemoff
Elizabeth Malozemoff

As the spring semester continued on, I, like many others, was having difficulty staying motivated for my online classes. But, when I read through Professor Elizabeth Malozemoff’s oral history interview, I was suddenly reminded of the simple fun and joy learning can bring. Before Malozemoff went on to become a Russian Culture and Literature professor at UC Berkeley, she was born in Tsarist Russia in 1881. Growing up as a daughter of a seamstress who interacted with the wealthy, she became familiar with the entrenched classism within Russian society, specifically the contempt toward the meshchane, or whom she called the “petty bourgeois.” She explained in her oral history how the meshchane were seen as “the people who cannot rise from the ground, who are only interested in eating and sleeping, they have no interest in anything culture or in anything spiritual.” According to Malozemoff, this only gave people of the meshchane a strong desire to break free from such conceptions. Her mother, who could speak multiple languages but could not read or count well, had a “determination to give the children the best education possible,” because it was a dream her “mother had when she was a young girl.” Malozemoff believes that her class upbringing became interlaced with her identity starting from a young age, and subsequently acted as fuel and passion for her teaching.

Malozemoff began teaching at age 19 in St. Petersburg, later founded a kindergarten in 1915 for workingmen’s children while holding adult classes for miners, and also was principal for a high school at Lena Gold Mines from 1918–1920. However, her world was upturned when the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 first brought on unwanted cuts and limitations to her school, and then the “saddest tragedy of my life.” She recalls in the interview how she heard from her younger brother:

I received a telegram from him announcing the deaths of the five dearest people in my life. There had been a massacre around the estate. The Bolsheviks massacred my mother, my two sisters, and even the nurse of my little nieces, and then my brother was killed. My nephew, a boy of twelve, jumped out of the window when these Bolsheviks came and started to use their rifles. The two little nieces, twins, crawled into a stove and they stayed there during the night. The whole place was ransacked.

The violence and political unrest ultimately led Malozemoff to leave her life and established career in Russia to escape with her family through Siberia, Mongolia, China, and Japan, until they eventually reached San Francisco in 1920. Heartbroken, she had to start her life from scratch.

Yet at the same time Malozemoff recalls that she entered the United states with a sense of fresh optimism, believing that it was “a blissful country for us that would give us a chance to develop our capabilities.” As she began to acculturate into American life, she made it her purpose “to give in written form American culture to the Russians, and also to bring Russian culture to my American audience, my American friends and the American people.” She also felt a sense of inferiority in her education, that her teaching in the “lower classes” and caring for her children had left her “so ignorant, not being up-to-date with literature, with music, with historical events which had occurred during the ten years.” Specializing in Russian culture, she enrolled and received her B.A. in 1922 at age 41, her M.A. in 1929, and her Ph.D in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures in 1938, all of which were obtained at the University of California, Berkeley. From 1935–1950, Malozemoff became a Russian language and culture professor, continuing her longterm passion for teaching and introducing Russian culture to students at Cal.

Needless to say, her journey was marked with obstacles. Malozemoff recalls the confusing process of adapting to American culture, stating that “during the first months in a foreign country you don’t understand what’s going on, not knowing the language, and not knowing many of the ways of life.” Regardless of what she had experienced, her optimism stood out to me. In her interview she remembers her horror while walking through a neighborhood during Christmastime, misinterpreting the wreaths hung on doors as a symbol for death in the family, instead of a festive decoration. While she saw it later as a “funny mistake,” it is one of countless examples of the little confusions an immigrant experiences while trying to adapt to a new culture in day-to-day life.

Deborah Qu
Deborah Qu is an undergraduate research assistant with the Oral History Center

Perhaps it is the stories hinting at her ability to connect with her students, the wisdom she gained from traveling, or her tenacity to learn and find new forms of teaching that I find most admirable. Or maybe it is her mantra that she proved to live by that I find most striking. Her favorite saying goes, “step forward, always forward, in all circumstances in life.” According to her, that is precisely what she did, “trying to be alive with continuous desire to be human and humane, in steps forward the simplification and service to the people.”

Deborah Qu just finished her first year at UC Berkeley and is majoring in psychology. As a part of the celebration of 150 years of women at Berkeley, Deborah is researching the Oral History Center’s vast archive to identify women in the collection with a relationship to UC Berkeley.

Winner of the Friesen Prize in Oral History Research

Friesen PrizeAnnouncing the Winner of the First Annual Friesen Prize in Oral History Research

The Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library is pleased to announce that the winner of the first Carmel and Howard Friesen Prize in Oral History Research is Ricky Noel, for his paper, “Corporate Imperialist Medicine: Aramco’s Health Care Initiatives in Saudi Arabia 1945–1965.” Mr. Noel is a Berkeley undergraduate majoring in history.

The selection committee read the several submissions for the following criteria: How well oral histories are integrated within and essential to the overall essay; how creatively oral histories are used in the essay; and the overall quality and persuasiveness of the essay. Noel’s essay excelled in all three areas. Particularly notable is the fact that his paper demonstrates how oral history interviews can be a crucial, even transformative, source from which new and enlightening historical interpretations can be drawn. Noel drew upon the interviews of the ARAMCO project, which consists of twenty-one oral histories covering the history of the US-Saudi oil operation founded in the 1930s and then sold to the Saudis in 1980. 

We applaud Mr. Noel for digging deep into the archives, reading through long and detailed oral histories, and, in the end, hitting pay dirt in terms of fascinating and consequential archival discoveries, such as the public health dimension to US investment in overseas industrial ventures, as is covered in this essay. In this time of remote research, we encourage all students to explore the 4,000 interviews in the Oral History Center online collection and, like Ricky Noel, produce meaningful original research. 

Episode 5 of the Oral History Center’s Special Season of the “Berkeley Remix” Podcast

Lately, things have been challenging and uncertain. We’re enduring an order to shelter-in-place, trying to read the news, but not too much, and prioritize self-care. Like many of you, we here at the Oral History Center are in need of some relief.

So, we’d like to provide you with some. Episodes in this series, which we’re calling “Coronavirus Relief,” may sound different from those we’ve produced in the past, that tell narrative stories drawing from our collection of oral histories. But like many of you, we, too, are in need of a break.

The Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Founded in 1954, the Center records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world.

We’ll be adding some new episodes in this Coronavirus Relief series with stories from the field, things that have been on our mind, interviews that have been helping us get through, and finding small moments of happiness.

Our fifth episode is from Shanna Farrell.

episode 5

When the shelter-in-place order was issued in mid-March by California Governor Gavin Newsom, many thoughts ran through my head. One of the milder ones — the kind that comes from the part of me that tries to find a silver lining in bad situations — was that I might have more time to read. I’ve always been an avid reader, mostly of fiction and narrative non-fiction, and often find myself counting down the hours until I can return to my book.

But in those early days of the global COVID-19 pandemic, I couldn’t concentrate on many things other than the news. My working hours bled into my free time as I tried my best to knock projects off my to-do list and remain productive as the world crumbled around us. 

And then one day I found myself staring at my bookshelf, the myriad of colorful spines calling to me. A soft pink cover caught my eye. I pulled Severance, a post-apocalyptic book by Ling Ma, off the shelf and cracked it open. The novel follows Candace Chen as a flu pandemic hits modern-day New York City. I call New York home, so it hit close, and was strangely cathartic. It didn’t hurt that the book is beautifully written and Ma’s prose is absorbing. It allowed me to escape in a way that worked with my limited focus. 

Back in the groove, I next read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, another post-apocalyptic novel about a global flu pandemic. This one split the timeline between when the pandemic hit Toronto, Canada, and twenty years in the future. In it, the author uses oral history as a device to connect the timelines. Every time I encounter the term “oral history” in literature – be it fiction or non-fiction – my heart quickens, never knowing if it’s being misused. 

As I read the fictional oral history interview transcript interspersed throughout the second half of Station Eleven, I was delighted, and deeply impressed, that Mandel seemed to understand that oral history is a type of long-form, recorded interview. This deepened my appreciation for both the writer and the book, discovering that there are people out there who don’t blur the lines between a clearly-defined methodology (about which I’ve mused on the OHC’s blog), taking the time to do their due diligence before employing a term they’ve heard about in passing. 

Ever since I read World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Apocalypse by Max Brooks, I’ve loved when authors use fictional oral history interviews to tell a story. I find the interviewer and narrator exchange, the chorus of voices, and the details from the past an engaging way to draw the reader in. Many times, I feel like I’m in the room with them.

My colleague, Amanda Tewes agrees. “I like that the familiarity of oral history draws me into a story (almost as if it was real) and allows the author to toy with memory in a way that is difficult when juggling many characters,” she’s told me. 

This brings us to our next OHC Oral History Book Club selection, picked by Amanda, which embraces the trend of oral history as a literary device in fiction. We’ll be reading Daisy Jones & the Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid, which the New York Times calls “a gripping novel about the whirlwind rise of an iconic 1970s rock group and their beautiful lead singer, revealing the mystery behind their infamous breakup.” 

Daisey Jones & the Six

The story unfolds through a series of fictional oral histories. The format is the kind we often find on the pages of Entertainment Weekly or Vanity Fair, inspired by the hallmark oral history book Edie about Edie Sedgewick. Daisy Jones & the Six is a best-seller, a Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick, and is the basis for a new mini-series from Witherspoon’s production company. 

This time around, we’re inviting you to join us for the June installment of our book club. On June 15, we’ll be holding a virtual meeting. We’ll be discussing the book, the use of oral history in literature and pop culture, and more. Please join us for a bit of escape during these deeply difficult, challenging times. 

We’ll be meeting on Zoom on Monday, June 15 at 11am PST/2pm EST. Please send me, Shanna Farrell, as RSVP via email if you’d like to join us. My email is, which you can also find on the OHC’s website.

Until then, happy reading and stay safe!

The Library Is More Than a Place

by Katherine Y. Chen

When I first began at Cal, I was excited to experience dorm life, take interesting classes, and study with my friends in the library. Before working at the Oral History Center, I viewed the library as merely a physical space to sit and study. However, working at the Oral History Center (OHC) quickly dispelled this false notion.

Through my tenure at the OHC and my experience with research from my classes, I have learned that the library is more than a building in which to study. The library offers a multitude of resources for students — databases encompassing different topics and mediums such as ProQuest for newspaper articles, librarians ready to assist students in planning out papers, and primary sources such as personal interviews. After an informative meeting with a librarian introducing all these resources and more, I quickly began to utilize them in my research. I spoke to a librarian who helped me find multiple sources for my papers; I learned how to navigate the infinite databases accessible to students; and I learned which database to use to find specific types of sources. 

Katherine Y. Chen
Katherine Y. Chen, communications assistant with the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library

Furthermore, my work at the OHC greatly helped me hone my research skills. I learned how to navigate an archive, how to find specific information, and had the opportunity to help fellow students as well. While promoting the Carmel and Howard Friesen Prize in Oral History Research to my peers, I was able to utilize all the skills I had learned. I helped students navigate the OHC’s archive to find interviews, and gave advice on further research. 

I became very familiar with the different projects and subject areas the OHC has to offer. My personal favorites are the Women Political Leaders project and the Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream project. It was gratifying and empowering to read about the impact women had on politics, especially as an Asian American woman who intends to pursue law. Furthermore, ice cream is a favorite treat of mine, and to learn about how Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream became widely popular was incredibly interesting. 

My experience at the OHC exposed me to the many resources the library has to offer. In turn, I aimed to introduce my peers to the wonders of the library. For example, my friend was writing a research paper for her class and was having trouble keeping her sources in one accessible place. Based on what I learned, I recommended the saving grace of my paper to her — Zotero. Zotero is a program used to store and cite sources, and a librarian recommended it to me after I described having the same issue. Once downloading Zotero, my friend had a much easier time with her sources, and citing them was even easier. 

Additionally, I recommended an oral history to another friend of mine who needed to find a primary source for their paper. They needed a source from a specific era, and I remembered reading over oral histories that fit what they were looking for. I sent over the link for the AIDS Epidemic in San Francisco Oral History Project. I wanted to show my peers that the library is not just a building to study in, but a plethora of resources right underneath their noses. 

To everyone reading, especially Cal students, take the time to learn more about the resources at the library. Take advantage of all the library has to offer, and I guarantee you will be all the better for it.

Katherine Y. Chen just finished her first year at Berkeley. She is majoring in rhetoric with a minor in public policy.