by Shanna Farrell


During the first few months that I was settling into life in the Bay Area after moving across the country, I often listened to WNYC, a New York City-based radio station. One morning, as I was riding my bike to work, the host of their call-in show, akin to KQED’s Forum, announced the upcoming segment.

“What was better back in the day?” the host asked. “It’s an oral history of nostalgia, starring you. Tell us about what you think was better from a previous era, why you miss it, and whether you think it’s better because of nostalgia, or because things were, empirically, better back in the day. Call us or post below.”

My heart started to race. This call out felt so personal. They had gotten it so wrong. I pulled over and dialed their number. A producer answered, unaware of their error. 

“I just heard your next segment is on the oral history of nostalgia,” I said. “But that’s not oral history.”

Confused, she asked me to explain what I meant. It was October of 2013, and I was fresh off earning a Master’s Degree in Oral History. I had spent a year taking method and theory classes, learning about what defines the discipline, exploring its boundaries. I had my interviews critiqued, my questions workshopped, and had been pushed to dig deeper into my research, all in the name of preparation. This felt dismissive of the work that we oral historians put into our interviews. It devalued the time (and money) that I’d put into my degree, and the job that I had just landed at UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center. 

As I tried to explain what oral history is and how what they were doing in this segment wasn’t it, I realized it would be impossible to fit into a two sentence elevator pitch. There’s so much that defines oral history, that makes it unique, distinct from other methods, that I could feel myself having trouble reducing it to something easy to pitch, just as they had to listeners. 

Looking back on that moment, I wish I would have said that oral history is defined by the planning, the transparency, the collaboration, the recording, intersubjectivity, the preservation, the legacy. I wish I would have said that it could take weeks to carefully research and write an interview outline, hours to build rapport, and months to complete an interview series. I wish I would have said that it takes practice to craft questions and to listen in stereo, picking up on the things that aren’t said, and to be comfortable sitting in silence. 

After I hung up the phone, I thought about why they called this segment “oral history.” I’m still thinking about it. The term became popular when magazines started running vox populi style interviews weaving together soundbites from different people to create a narrative. They ran pieces about the about the making of a movie, like Jurassic Park, or a TV show, like The Simpsons. Later, it became a household term when StoryCorps partnered with NPR to bring us our Friday driveway moments, produced from a carefully edited interview excerpt. Lately, it has seeped into literature. More and more, I see “oral history” to describe a work of memoir, creative nonfiction, and even fiction. Recently, I was reading the Sunday New York Times book review section and they positioned a new memoir as “part oral history, part urban history.” I couldn’t wrap my head around what this meant. How was it oral history? Had the author done interviews? How was this different from a regular memoir? And lately, I’ve seen a few journalists refer to themselves as oral historians without seeming like they have a solid understanding of what the term means, aside from it involving interviews.


Where does this lack of understanding stem from? Why is the term “oral history” battered around so easily? When did it first get misappropriated? The origin of the Entertainment Weekly and Vanity Fair versions are relatively straightforward, descending from the Jean Stein-style books like Edie: American Biography, which is constructed from interviews with people who knew Edie Sedgwick after her death in 1971, or books that recounted musical eras, like We Got the Neutron Bomb by Mark Spitz and Brendan Mullen (which also served as my first introduction to oral history when I was in high school) or Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. As for where the rest of it came from – like the recent trend in literature – it’s anyone’s guess. 

Edie by Jean Stein

I’m not the only one who has been noticing this trend. In 2014, the anonymous user @notoralhistory joined Twitter. For a while, they tweeted examples of people labeling articles or projects as oral history that were, indeed, not actually oral history. They now promote examples of oral history and engage in conversations around best practices. There are practitioners who also tweet bad examples of oral history, using #notoralhistory, which are often amusing, and then maddening, and then amusing again.

The problem with these mediums is that they can’t accomplish the same things that actual oral history does. These narratives just provide soundbites, while oral history gives us much more context. They don’t include any audio (or video), so we lose the ability to connect with a human voice. They are highly edited, whereas oral history allows people to speak in their own style. They are usually layered with other voices, instead of giving someone individual space to fully narrate their own story.

The link in @notoralhistory’s bio takes you to the Oral History Association’s website, to the page where they define oral history. Here, they share a quote from Donald Ritchie’s book, Doing Oral History. He writes:

“Oral History collects memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews.  An oral history interview generally consists of a well-prepared interviewer questioning an interviewee and recording their exchange in audio or video format.  Recordings of the interviews are transcribed, summarized, or indexed and then placed in a library or archives. These interviews may be used for research or excerpted in a publication, radio or video documentary, museum exhibition, dramatization or other form of public presentation. Recordings, transcripts, catalogs, photographs and related documentary materials can also be posted on the Internet. Oral history does not include random taping, such as President Richard Nixon’s surreptitious recording of his White House conversations, nor does it refer to recorded speeches, wiretapping, personal diaries on tape, or other sound recordings that lack the dialogue between interviewer and interviewee.”

Oral history can accomplish so much. It gives us insight into the past, hearing directly from the people who lived through various moments in history. By archiving the recordings, we can listen to how narrators tell their stories, and gain insight into why they told it this way. We can put a human face on history and learn from those who came before us. And, when oral history is done right, through careful preparation, research, and recording, we can ensure that these people are not forgotten, their stories not reduced to a soundbite. 

It is with similar intention that we are devoting many of our articles this month that revolve around the boundaries of oral history. You’ll hear from us about our experience doing oral history and what makes it different from other disciplines and methods. We hope you follow along.

Oral history and the Second Golden Age of Radio?

A long while ago, my colleague Shanna Farrell told our group about one of her pet peeves, the overuse / misuse of the term “oral history” in the media. She is certainly right about the increased use of the term. A cursory search of the mass-media landscape includes some fun stories in Forbes on the week Wayne Gretzky hosted Saturday Night Live, in Billboard on the time Kanye West rushed the stage at the Video Music Awards, and in vulture.com (New York Magazine) on a scene in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, in which an actor narrowly avoids having a pencil pierce his eyeball.

Kanye West and Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards

As I was looking at these pieces, it occurred to me that what journalists mean by “oral history” is simply a more extensive use of quotations and a lighter touch with the narrative. But it’s still, of course, journalism. These are “thick descriptions” of a moment in time, not the life histories oral historians usually do.

We in the profession of oral history, however, are at a bit of a messaging disadvantage. After all, mainstream journalism, even in the age of social media, is the ultimate mainline to the public. In fact, journalists still for the most part shape and define what we call “the public.”But do all of these examples constitute a misuse of the term “oral history?” The piece on The Dark Knight, for example, is nothing more than a series of quotations from people interviewed for the article. How different are these from the secondary outputs developed within the field of oral history, such as the Oral History Center’s own podcasts?

There is a real appetite for what oral historians do, and it’s growing. Part of me welcomes this misuse of so-called oral history, as long as we have the opportunity to correct misconceptions about our nuts-and-bolts work, i.e., the co-creation of more in-depth life histories, and to highlight the core fact of our privileging the voice and authority of the narrator over our own.

With our hectic, multitasking lives, punctuated by the forced downtime of gridlocked traffic and monotonous subway rides, we’re living in a strange second Golden Age of Radio. Archival oral history projects have a great shot at reaching these audiences of bored commuters, pensive gardeners, and late-night snugglers if we can broaden our notion of how to package and curate the wonderful materials we’ve helped to make with our narrators.

OHC Director’s Column – September 2019

An oral history of the Zombie War!? 

No, UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center isn’t about to undertake an oral history project on humanity’s battles with zombies. But this was the subtitle to the 2006 novel by Max Brooks, World War Z, that was later made into a big-budget movie starring Brad Pitt as, what else, a former UN employee-turned-zombie eradicator. Having experienced both versions, I can say without qualification that the book was far superior to the movie, in part because the book attempted to take the oral history dimension a bit more seriously—while not skimping on fun or sensation. “Oral history” in this case was the novel’s conceit: first person accounts collected in the wake of the war (spoiler alert: the zombies lose), edited and spliced together in an attempt to create a narrative of the madness. But, really, is this “oral history”? 

WWZ cover

In recent years, “oral history” has moved from academic jargon to pop culture ubiquity. While there have been moments in the past when oral history-like projects have broken through (think Alex Haley’s Roots), only now are we seeing, for example, “An Oral History of the Time Wayne Gretzky Appeared on SNL,” an article which appeared last month in Forbes (of all places!). Surely my colleagues and I are thrilled that oral history appears to be having a moment. Less often do I get that crinkled look on someone’s face when I tell them, “I’m an oral historian.” They’re not as likely to ask, “Does that have something to do with… dentistry?” But. We are not entirely comfortable with what this increase of recognition means. People link “oral history” to any number of cultural products, maybe especially StoryCorps, which is regularly featured on NPR. Like World War Z, however, even StoryCorps is quite different from the way in which professional, university-based oral historians do our work.

Within the oral history community there is on-going conversation about just what elements comprise “best practices.” Yet, there is some baseline agreement as evidenced by the Best Practices document approved by the members of the Oral History Association in 2018. At the Oral History Center, our definition of “oral history” begins with a set of core practices and procedures. These practices set our work apart from anthropologists, most journalists, and, yes, fictional chroniclers of the zombie wars. 

Oral history at Berkeley begins with creating a project and determining its size and scope, which might result in fifty interviews or just one. We select the narrators, or interviewees, and ask them to sign a letter of informed consent. This letter details their rights and responsibilities, including the fact that they can withdraw from a project at any point prior to its completion. The interviews are conducted, typically in two-hour sessions, and are recorded on video, unless the narrator wants audio-only. All interviews are transcribed then lightly edited by our staff before being given to narrators for review and approval. We finalize the transcripts, deposit them in The Bancroft Library, and usually make them available to world-at-large through our website. So, for us, “oral history” is defined by three key elements: thorough research and planning; narrator consent at the beginning and approval at the conclusion of the project; and broad accessibility to the finished and approved transcript (and, increasingly, to the original recording as well). Once these bona-fide oral histories have been completed and offered up for use, hungry minds around the world are given the opportunity to create their own interpretive oral history projects on any number of subjects from the banal to the profound, from the tiny to the grandiose—but let’s all hope not on any zombie war past, present, or future. 

In this issue of our monthly newsletter, we ponder the question of “what is” and “what is not” oral history. As you’ll notice, we are not doctrinaire, but we do take this question very seriously and think that it is a useful starting point for any conversation about what it is that we do.

Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director of the Oral History Center

Bay Area Women in Politics Oral History Project

This project is unique in that it focuses on women in one geographic region in order to get a clearer picture of the breadth of political work women have been doing on the ground and behind the scenes.

women marching for suffrage
Women marching for suffrage

Nineteen ninety-two has been dubbed “The Year of the Woman,” a phenomenon in which a wave of women candidates swept local and national races for public office. California led this charge by becoming the first state in American history to be represented by two women senators—Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. And since 2016—after a presidential election that provoked heated debate about gender discrimination and sexual harassment—many women stepped up to the challenge of engaging even more visibly in the American political system. Since then, organizations like Emily’s List and She Should Run reported record-breaking numbers of women who wanted to make their voices heard by running for public office.

And yet, 1992 was not the beginning of women’s political activism, but rather the culmination of decades of organization encouraging women to get involved and run for office. For generations, Bay Area women have built the foundations of political activism that span neighborhood organizations to support networks. And their stories inform our present.

In order to document these stories, I am developing the Bay Area Women in Politics Oral History Project to record the history of these local women and their impact on and journeys through politics. The Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley continues to preserve stories about California politicians, but this project is unique in that it focuses on women in one geographic region in order to get a clearer picture of the breadth of political work women have been doing on the ground and behind the scenes. Documenting political engagement outside of traditional political venues will capture more stories about women in politics and a more diverse array of stories.

For instance, the pilot interview for this oral history project is with Mary Hughes, a Bay Area political consultant. In her interview, Hughes explained that “in politics and in political consulting, you either win races or you don’t. If you don’t win, no one hires you. If you do win, everybody wants to hire you.” Hughes’s successful career in the Bay Area spans decades and highlights the prominence of women in national politics. And though she does not wish to run for office herself, Hughes sees her role as someone who can best serve her community by managing the election process for political candidates—especially other women. Hughes’s recollections are an example of the kinds of stories that will drive this oral history project.

Mary Hughes
Mary Hughes, political consultant and the first narrator of the Bay Area Women in Politics Oral History Project

These long-form oral history interviews survey Bay Area political women’s backgrounds in and passion for political work through self-reflection. This format allows for comparisons between various avenues of political activism—like organizers and elected officials. It also reveals the importance of networks and mentors, and the impact they have had on women in the Bay Area political scene.

As engaged citizens, we need to know more about these women who helped create a space for themselves in Bay Area political life. Who are these women and what are their stories?  From neighborhood organizations to national campaigns, what is the range of political activism in which these women engage?  How has being a woman been a challenge or an asset to their political involvement? How have these women been working in the background of political life for generations?  How does living and working in California affect political opportunities? What kind of political power do these women wield locally and nationally?

As we approach the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage, conducting oral histories with women activists and politicians in California’s San Francisco Bay Area will help shape the national narrative about women’s historic, current, and future roles in American political life.  Further, gathering firsthand stories will help inspire and instruct a new generation of politically engaged women.

In addition to collecting primary source materials, The Oral History Center shares its collection with the general public through interpretive materials—like podcasts—and educational initiatives. Recording the contributions of these impressive Bay Area women—political fundraisers, organizers, and elected officials—through life history interviews is the first step in developing curriculum for workshops that cultivate young women’s political leadership. These workshops will use oral histories as a tool to foster civic engagement across the political spectrum, as well as to help develop confidence and skills of future women leaders. We also plan to create a podcast, a series of public forums, and a museum exhibit featuring these interviews.

We are currently raising funds for this project, and need your help to undertake the expansion of this ambitious oral history collection. You can support this project by giving to the Oral History Center. Please note under special instructions: “For the Bay Area Women in Politics Oral History Project.” To learn more about this project, please contact Amanda Tewes at atewes@berkeley.edu or 510-666-3687.


Amanda Tewes is an interviewer with The Oral History Center and specializes in California history and political culture.

The Oral History Center is a research program of the University of California, Berkeley.  The OHC helps preserve contemporary history by conducting carefully researched video recorded and transcribed interviews. As part of UC Berkeley’s commitment to open access, archival copies of the audio/video and transcripts are placed in The Bancroft Library and are publicly accessible online.

The Science and Art of Oral History: My Internship Experience

Eleanor Naiman is a rising senior at Swarthmore College majoring in History. This past summer, Eleanor worked with historian Amanda Tewes of the Oral History Center on the Bay Area Women in Politics Oral History Project. As an intern, Eleanor researched the contributions of women to Bay Area politics and assisted Tewes with her interviews. Here, Eleanor reflects on her internship experience in the Oral History Center.

Elenaor Naiman

Eleanor Naiman, 2019

There is a science to professional oral history. From start to finish, the interview process requires meticulous attention to detail and respect for technique, form, and skill. When an OHC historian sets off to conduct an interview, be it a conversation with a Bay Area political consultant or with a Connecticut anthropologist, she does so equipped with heavy black bags of tools and folders and parts that, to the untrained (read: intern) eye, might seem better suited for the high-tech activities of a secret agent than the practice of oral history. And yet, each cord, mic, form, and gadget plays an integral role in the interview process.

Over the course of my summer as an intern at the OHC, I’ve become better versed in this highly technical science of capturing a story. I’ve learned how to identify a potential narrator and with which forms to ask for her consent. I’ve spent long hours researching the entirety of her life, creating an outline of its twists and turns and of the people with whom it has come into contact. I’ve become a convert to the practice of the “pre-interview,” a conversation that allows the interviewer to check her facts and flesh out her timeline.

Even the intimidating black tool bags have become familiar. I’ve learned to unfold a tripod to just the right height. To angle a camera towards my narrator’s left cheek, framing her head from hair to collarbone and obscuring her lapel microphone. I know how to initialize an SD card; how to stop recording, then press power; and how to make the light in the room warmer or cooler based on the narrator’s proximity to a window. My technical skills are far from perfect, and it often takes me about five times longer to set up equipment than it should, but my fumbles and mistakes only reinforce my newfound appreciation for the complex science of oral history.

And yet, if oral history is a science, it is also an art.

I have learned that oral history, at its root, relies not on the positioning of the camera or the placement of the mic but on the strength of the trust carefully built by both historian and narrator during weeks of exchanges and phone calls preceding the interview itself. This trust is not quantifiable; a relationship, it turns out, is harder to assemble than a camera tripod.

I have learned how to speak my narrator’s language, repeating the terminology she’s used to reinforce her sense of ownership of her life stories. I know to follow the flow of her memories, asking open-ended questions that evoke the feelings she experienced in a time or place. I try to understand how my own biases inform my questions, and to consider how intersubjectivity influences the relationship my narrator and I can build. I have learned to listen more deeply than I ever have. Perhaps most importantly, I know to allow my narrator to guide our conversation as an equal partner in this history we’re creating together.

This summer I have become a techie and a philosopher, a stickler for spreadsheets and a careful listener, a more confident camerawoman and a historian never so acutely aware of all that she does not know. In short, I have become a scientist and an artist: an oral historian.

My First Brush with Oral History

I first encountered oral history in my master’s program in history at California State University, Fullerton. I chose the program because it had strong public history training, but in my research about the school I discovered the pedagogy included something called “oral history.” I scratched my head at that, but added that information to a laundry list of graduate school problems labeled: “I guess I’ll figure it out when I get there.” After all, I wanted training to be a museum curator – and nothing else.

Things didn’t go according to plan.

Nearby History
Nearby History is one of the books that introduced me to public history. It defines public history as community history, and includes a chapter on “oral documents.”

My introduction to oral history was immediate. In my first public history course, a fateful assignment meant I needed to lead a small group discussion about oral history as historical evidence and as practice. My sense of oral history at the time was pretty limited to oral tradition: elders informally sharing knowledge about the past. My group consisted of undergraduates and graduate students who also had little to no experience with oral history, so we set out to discuss: what is oral history and what is its value to public historians?

We debated the reliability of oral history, given its dependence on memory and subjective experiences. We talked about how differing approaches to transcription shade researchers’ experience with oral history source material. We also questioned whether oral history had a place in public history writ large, or if it should be a separate discipline. And yet, we all agreed that it was important to record people’s life experiences, that their stories are inherently valuable.

Rememberign Ahanagran
Remembering Ahanagran is historian Richard White’s ode to his mother, an Irish immigrant who never quite appreciated the historical subjects about which he chose to write. It’s a great example of the ways historians can interweave personal stories with other evidence to create a fuller and more complicated picture of the past.

I began the assignment deeply skeptical of oral history, but at some point during this discussion I found myself defending the practice because of the value of these alternate stories. In part, public history springs from an activist tradition hoping to recover pasts not about white male leaders, but of the everyday and everyman. With that framework in mind, I ended up posing the question: is oral history the most egalitarian practice in public history?

My argument was that much of the time museum exhibits are the result of so-called experts communicating history to the public; it’s an expensive and laborious process that doesn’t always involve the people who witnessed the history presented in the exhibit. But oral history, it’s different. At its core, oral history involves two people sitting down to chat using potentially inexpensive equipment to record their conversation. This process takes place outside the Ivory Tower and requires talking – and really listening – to people in your community, people whose lives and expertise have often been under acknowledged or completely overlooked. In theory, oral history can invert the power structure of just who is the expert. Unlike the rest of the historical profession, oral historians don’t just study the past, they help shape documents about the past by interacting with the people who lived it.

It was during this initial assignment about oral history that I began to question where oral history fits with other historical evidence. I eventually concluded that oral history is different from other text-based sources because it comes with a set of complications about collecting the information. And yet, oral history is also different because sharing human experiences through oral tradition is a powerful tool in making sweeping historical narratives personal and relatable – this connection to the past is difficult to achieve through census records.

Presence of the Past
Presence of the Past is a foundational text for public historians, and emphasizes that most Americans trust personal narratives (oral tradition, oral history) rather than history textbooks.

It was through these discussions and further exposure to the value of first-person interviews that I finally resolved my questions about how oral history relates to public history. And oral history has become an important mainstay in my toolkit in my career as a public historian.


New Release Oral History: Jesse Choper on the Constitution, Legal Education, and Horse Races

The Oral History Center is pleased to release our life history interview with Jesse Choper. Jesse Choper is the Earl Warren Professor of Public Law (Emeritus) at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, where he also served as dean from 1982 to 1992.

Jesse Choper, Berkeley Law deanChoper was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1935 to immigrant parents from Lithuania. He was educated at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and alongside his studies served on the law review and lectured at the Wharton School. Following his graduation in 1960, he served as law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. He has authored numerous influential books and articles on constitutional law, including the role of the Supreme Court, the religion clauses of the Constitution, the eleventh amendment, as well as casebooks on constitutional and corporate law. This autobiographical oral history covers the full sweep of his life and work as a legal scholar, educator, and administrator. In this interview, Dean Choper talks about his upbringing and evolving relationship to Judaism; his education and teaching experience and philosophy; his clerkship for Chief Justice Warren; the numerous complex issues he faced as faculty and dean of the law school; the issues behind his books and articles on constitutional law, including freedom of religion, the establishment clause, contraception and abortion, individual rights, federalism, and separation of powers; reflections on changes over the past several decades to the Supreme Court, tenure, and approaches to constitutional law; and his role on the California Horse Racing Board.

The Oral History Center has interviewed Dean Choper on two previous occasions, once for the Law Clerks of Chief Justice Earl Warren project and then again for the Athletics at UC Berkeley project.

Dr. Robert Allen’s Port Chicago and Civil Rights Archive and Oral History Collection

By Julie Musson and Lisa Monhoff

This July marks the 75th Anniversary of the Port Chicago Naval Magazine disaster, a massive explosion that resulted in the largest loss of life on the U.S. mainland during WWII. The explosion happened while African-American sailors were loading a munitions ship in the Suisun Bay. Munitions detonated and two cargo ships exploded killing 320 and injuring 390 sailors and civilians. After the explosion, hundreds of African-American servicemen refused to return to segregated, unfair, and unsafe work conditions and 50 of those sailors held out for better work conditions. In response, the Navy charged the men with mutiny and sentenced them to 15 years of hard labor. The disastrous event at Port Chicago and media coverage of the ensuing mutiny trial was a pivotal moment in the discussions of racial inequality in the U.S. and contributed to desegregation in the Navy beginning in 1946.

In 2016, the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial under the stewardship of the National Park Service acquired the Dr. Robert Allen Port Chicago and Civil Rights Collection. The collections comprised of 35 linear feet of research archives and 34 hours of oral history interview content produced by Dr. Robert L. Allen as the result of over 40 years of primary research, documentation and scholarly works. The work of Dr. Allen to understand and publicize the disaster and the mistreatment of the sailors culminated in the publication of The Port Chicago Mutiny in 1989 and has continued with decades of appeals for official pardons and exoneration for those charged with mutiny. 

The Robert L. Allen papers on Civil Rights consist of correspondence, primary research, writing and teaching materials created by Dr. Allen in his capacity as activist, editor, writer and educator. Dr. Allen’s body of work includes several books written and published about civil rights and labor leaders, including Bay Area activists Lee Brown and C.L. Dellums. He also served as Senior Editor and writer for many years at The Black Scholar, co-founded a small press with Alice Walker called Wild Trees and taught in the Ethnic Studies and African-American Studies programs at the University of California, Berkeley.

In collaboration with the National Park Service, the Bancroft Technical Services processed and digitized the National Park Service’s Dr. Robert Allen Port Chicago papers and the Bancroft’s Robert L. Allen papers on Civil Rights. The Oral History Center digitized and transcribed the Port Chicago Oral History interviews.

Links to the resources are below.

The Bancroft’s Robert L. Allen papers http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/c8sq966g/ 

NPS Allen (Dr. Robert) Port Chicago Papers http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/c8f195h3/ 

Oral History Center Port Chicago Interviews http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/libraries/bancroft-library/oral-history-center/projects/poch

OHC Director’s Column – July/August 2019

“How can one best teach oral history?” This is the question that OHC staff asks every year in anticipation of our annual Advance Oral History Institute, held the week of August 5th this year. Oral history is many things — a research methodology, a mode of inquiry, a field of study, a way of engaging with people — so how does one approach communicating a viable path toward the completion of successful interviews?

A few generations of practitioners, theorists, and teachers have approached this challenge in any number of ways. Some recommend book study to first learn the issues and questions —  the overall discourse of oral history — as the best way to achieve sure-footing; others insist that competence in oral history, being primarily about human exchange, is most easily achieved through practice, learning as you go; and some contend that oral history is nothing more than historical research, so pursue it as one would archival study. The correct answer is probably all of the above, or some dynamic mixture thereof. 

Summer Institute OHCIn 2014, after hosting probably ten Institutes, new and veteran OHC staff gathered, led by then-new Institute Director Shanna Farrell, to refashion the program and attempt to come up with an optimal way to ‘teach’ oral history over the 5-day program. Farrell came up with the notion of matching the flow of the week to the life-cycle of the interview: Monday focuses on oral history foundations — concepts, theories, and ethics; Tuesday details approaches to project planning and conceptualization; Wednesday naturally examines the complexities of the interview itself; Thursday we delve into strategies for analysis and interpretation of those interviews; and Friday we bring it together by considering various oral history outputs, such as transcripts, podcasts, and books. Along the way, participants engage with the theoretical and methodological literature of oral history; they have the opportunity to witness a ‘live interview’ and then practice interviews of their own; and in small workshop groups they are invited to consider how oral history research might augment and, potentially, transform their own research projects. 

Over the past year or so, in our newsletter we have featured profiles of several Institute ‘graduates’ — individuals who have achieved great things through their own hard work, work that we like to think the Institute has informed and maybe even improved. The plan for this year is to live-tweet parts of the Institute, so please follow us on twitter if you don’t already. And while our 2019 Institute is sold-out, it is not too early to plan for 2020 (dates coming soon!). 

Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director

Let There Be Light podcast explores identity at UC Berkeley — through housing, microchips, and the Berkeley food scene

Announcing Season 4 of the Berkeley Remix podcast!

This season of the Berkeley Remix we’re bringing to life stories about our home — UC Berkeley — from our collection of thousands of oral histories. Please join us for our fourth season, Let There Be Light: 150 Years at UC Berkeley, inspired by the University’s motto, Fiat Lux. Our episodes this season explore issues of identity — where we’ve been, who we are now, the powerful impact Berkeley’s identity as a public institution has had on student and academic life, and the intertwined history of campus and community.

The three-episode season explores how housing has been on the front lines of the battle for student welfare throughout the University’s history; how UC Berkeley created a culture of innovation that made game-changing technologies possible; and how political activism on campus was a motivator for the farm-to-table food scene in the city of Berkeley. All episodes include audio from interviews from the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library.

Episode 1. Sleeping with the Light On: Housing and Community at Berkeley

Written and produced by historian Amanda Tewes, UC Berkeley Oral History Center

“From early housing cooperatives during the Great Depression, to fights for racial and gender parity on campus, housing has been on the front lines of the battle for student welfare throughout the University’s history.”

International House
I-House opened in 1930 and was built to foster intercultural connections.

We’ve come to think of communal living as a tradition for students, a rite of passage and a valuable lesson in community building. But for much of its history, UC Berkeley didn’t even have residence halls! In this episode, we explore what home and community has meant to students at Cal, and how accessible spaces have supported social justice movements on and beyond campus.

This episode includes audio from the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library, including Rev. Allen C. Blaisdell, Jackie Goldberg, Frank Inami, Marguerite Kulp Johnston, Edward V. Roberts, and Dorothy Walker. Voiceover of Ruth Norton Donnelly’s interview by Shanna Farrell. Audio from the “Which Campus?” video courtesy of The Bancroft Library. (Written version of Sleeping with the Light On.)

Episode 2. Berkeley Lightning: A Public University’s Role in the Rise of Silicon Valley

Written and produced by historian Paul Burnett, UC Berkeley Oral History Center

“We’re used to hearing about how game-changing technology makes whole new ways of living and working possible. But what makes the game-changing technologies possible? UC Berkeley — a public, state university — established institutions and teams that would make the culture of innovation possible.”

Integrated Circuit
Integrated circuits from Hewlett Packard 34C calculator, designed with assistance from UC Berkeley Professor William M. Kahan

“Berkeley Lightning” is about the contributions of UC Berkeley Engineering to the rise of the semiconductor industry in what became known as Silicon Valley in the 1960s and 70s. In contrast to the influential entrepreneurial spirit of a private university like Stanford, Berkeley’s status as a public institution had a different impact on Silicon Valley. We focus on the development of the first widely used design program for prototyping microchips. Originally designed by and for students, the software spread like lightning in part because Berkeley, as a public institution, made it available free of charge. The world has not been the same since.

This episode includes audio from the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library, including Paul R. Gray, Professor of Engineering Emeritus, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Dr. Laurence Nagel, CEO Omega Enterprises, PhD from UC Berkeley EECS, and former senior manager at Bell Laboratories (oral history forthcoming). (Written version of Berkeley Lightning.)

Episode 3. Berkeley After Dark

Written and produced by interviewer Shanna Farrell, UC Berkeley Oral History Center

“What Alice Waters and the Chez Panisse team did was probably the most radical gesture in restaurants and cooking in America in the last century. It’s important that it happened in Berkeley.” — Chef Christopher Lee

Chez Panisse
Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley

Berkeley After Dark is about the connection between the history of farm-to-table eating and the campus community. UC Berkeley alum Alice Waters helped pioneer the concept of eating local, seasonal, and organic food at her restaurant, Chez Panisse, located just a few blocks from campus on Shattuck Avenue. This grew out of her combined love of feeding people and political activism, and evolved into a culinary revolution. And it couldn’t have happened without UC Berkeley. The intertwined history between campus and the community gave Chez Panisse an audience, and a workforce, creating a symbiotic relationship.

This episode includes audio from the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library, including Christopher Lee, Narsai David, and Dylan O’Brien. Voiceover of Marion Cunningham’s interview by Amanda Tewes and Paul Bertolli’s interview by John Fragola. Supplemental interviews with Chris Ying. (Written version of Berkeley After Dark.)


Over the decades, the Oral History Center has conducted 4,000 interviews on almost every topic imaginable. As part of UC Berkeley’s commitment to open access, the transcripts are available to researchers and the public at no cost, and almost all of the transcripts are available online. Search our vast collection.