The Gift of Being an Interviewer
From years of listening, I’ve learned that we all want to tell our stories and that we want, we need, to be heard.
After close to nineteen years with the Oral History Center — ten of those years serving in a leadership role — I have decided to hang up my microphone and leave my job at Cal. As with any major life transition, reflections naturally pour forth at times like these. I’ve been keeping track of these thoughts in hopes that they might prove interesting to others who have spent so many hours interviewing people about their lives or those who are interested in oral history writ large.
For me, learning and practicing oral history interviewing has been a gift. It has made my life richer, allowed me to access insights about human nature that otherwise might have been hidden from me, and offered me the opportunity to see people as the individuals that they are, freed from the stifling confines of presumed identities and expected opinions.
At OHC, interviewers typically work on a wide variety of projects. We often interview about topics in which we do not already have expertise and thus must develop some fluency with something new to us. Because we contribute to an archive that is to serve the needs of an unforeseeable set of current and future researchers, we naturally interview people who have made their mark in very different fields. This means that we interview people, sometimes at tremendous length, who are not like us and whose life stories and ways of thinking might be very different from our own. There is a well-documented tendency among oral historians to interview our heroes, people whose political ideals jibe with our own, people who can serve protagonists in our histories, people whose voices we want to amplify. At the Oral History Center, this bias is not paramount — rather, we strive to interview people across a broad spectrum of every imaginable category. And while we almost always end up very much liking our interviewees, they need not be our personal heroes and are not required to share our opinions; they only need to be an expert in one thing: their own lives and experiences.
This way in which we do our work has sent me wide and far and exposed me to a profound diversity of ways of looking at the world. And this multiplicity of perspectives has informed, challenged, engaged, astounded, and, frankly, remade me again and again over the past two decades. It is this essential facet of my work that I consider a gift to my own life.
After having conducted approximately 200 oral histories, ranging in length from ninety minutes to over sixty hours each, I find it a tad difficult at this point to highlight some interviews and not others. Whenever I get asked (as I often do): what was your favorite interview? I used to wrack my brain, endlessly scrolling through all of those experiences, but now I usually just say, “my most recent oral history.” I offer that up because the latest one typically remains most fresh in my own (not always so robust) memory — it is the interview that still retains much of the nuance, content, and feeling for me and that’s why it is “the best.” Still, I want to offer up a few examples from some of my oral histories to show how interviewing has influenced the way I live in the world.
Moving beyond my comfort zone
I arrived at OHC in July 2003, first spending a year on a fellowship in which I was given the opportunity to finish my book manuscript, Contacts Desired (2006), and then in July 2004 I started as a staff interviewer. My areas of expertise were social history, the history of sexuality and gender, and the history of communications. My first major oral history assignment? A multiyear project on the history of the major integrated healthcare system, Kaiser Permanente. Not only was this topic well outside my area of expertise, it also was not intrinsically interesting to me. But this was a new job and a big opportunity, so with an imposing hill in front of me, I decided to climb it. The project went on for five years and during that time I conducted most of the four dozen interviews. The topics ranged from public policy and government regulation to epidemiological research and new approaches to care delivery. I was sensitive to my inexperience with the subject matter so I hit the books and consulted earlier oral histories. I worked hard to get up to speed.
Just a few interviews into the project I had what might be considered an epiphany. After years of studying historical topics that were familiar to me, even deeply personal, I was pleased to discover something new about myself: I loved the study of history and the process of learning something new. Period. With this newly understood drive, I pushed myself deeper into the project and, I hope, was able to be the kind of interviewer that allowed my interviewees to tell the stories that most needed to be told. As it happens, along the way, I learned a great deal about a topic — the US healthcare system — that is exceedingly important, extraordinarily complex, yet necessary to understand. When the push for healthcare reform burst through in 2009 and 2010, I felt informed enough to follow the story and to understand the possibilities and pitfalls endemic to such an effort. In short, if one is open to the challenge, oral history can significantly broaden one’s horizons, educating one in critical areas of knowledge (from the mouths of experts!), and it might even make one into a more informed citizen.
Questioning what I thought I already knew
The Freedom to Marry oral history project was in many ways the opposite of the Kaiser Permanente project. First off, I could rightfully consider myself an expert in the history of the fight to win the right to marry for same-sex couples and the broader issues surrounding it. After all, I had written a book on gay and lesbian history and had personal experience with the movement when I married my partner in February 2004. Moreover, in graduate school and in preparation for writing my book, I had closely studied the history of activism and social movements. I had gone into this project, then, thinking I had a pretty good idea of what the story would be and what the narrators might say on the topic: this would be another chapter in the decades-long fight for civil rights in which activists engaged in protest and direction action, spoke truth to power, and forced the recalcitrant and prejudiced to change their minds.
From fall 2015 through spring 2016, I conducted twenty-three interviews with movement leaders and big-name attorneys, but also with young organizers and social media pros; I interviewed people in San Francisco and New York, but also in Maine, Oklahoma, Minnesota, and Oregon. What I learned in these interviews not only made me greatly expand my understanding of the campaign for marriage equality, these interviews also forced me to revise my beliefs about social movements and how meaningful and lasting social change can happen (I write about this more here). As a result of this project, I came to believe that some forms of protest, especially violent direct action, are almost always counterproductive to the purported aims; that castigating people with different ideas and perceived values is wrong and likely to produce a long-term backlash; and that in spite of our differences of opinion on contemporary hot button social issues, the majority of people cherish similar core values — values that bind rather than separate. The interviews demonstrated that by focusing on the shared values, rather than hurling epithets like “homophobe!” or “racist!” at your opponents, the ground is better readied for future understanding to grow. The history I documented surely is more complex than this, but these observations are true to what I found and are a necessary part of the reason this particular movement succeeded as well as it did. Through the Freedom to Marry oral history project, I learned to question the accepted public narrative and even what historians think that they knew on a topic. I recognized that openness to new ideas is a prerequisite of good scholarship. I recognized that most of all I needed to listen to what the oral history interviewees said and to compare that to what I thought I already knew. As a result, I learned to not let what I thought I already knew determine what I could still learn.
Telling a good story
The oral history interview is a peculiar thing. As ubiquitous as interviewing seems today, from StoryCorps on NPR to countless podcasts featuring interviews around the world to articles in the biggest magazines, the classic oral history method as we practice it at OHC is still quite rare. For our interviews, both interviewer and interviewee put in a great deal of effort in terms of background research, drafting interview outlines, on-the-record interviewing (often in excess of 20 hours with one person), and review and editing of the interview transcript. As a result, our interviews are almost always excellent source material for historians, journalists, and researchers and students of all stripes. But what moves an oral history from “good documentation” to something more is often the quality of the storytelling. Certainly some people, as a result of special experiences, have more fascinating stories to tell than others, but everyone I’ve ever interviewed has many worthwhile stories to tell: from formative family dynamics while young to the universal process of aging.
The difference between a competently told story and an engrossing one isn’t necessarily the elements of the story but the skill and verve of the storyteller. To hear Richard Mooradian, for example, speak about his life as a tow truck driver on the Bay Bridge and tell what it’s like to tow a big rig on the bridge amidst a driving rain storm is, yes, to learn something new but, more, it is to gain insight into a personality and the passion that drives that person to do what he does. I eventually learned (maybe I’m still learning) that when someone begins a story — and I know now the difference between a question being answered and a story being told — it is time for me to shut up, actively listen, and be open to the interviewee to reveal something meaningful about themselves. After years of helping, I hope, others give the best telling of their own stories, I started to think about my own stories, both the stories themselves but also how they have been told. I’ve come to think that these stories are nothing less than life itself: they are the emotional diaries that we keep with us always and, if we’re good, are prepared to present them to friends and strangers alike. From years of listening, I’ve learned that most of us want to tell our stories and that we want, we need, to be heard. This is a deeply humane impulse and I like to think that nurturing this impulse is at the core of what I’ve learned to be of true value over the past two decades.
These three lessons — openness to moving beyond your comfort zone, questioning what you think you already know, and telling a good story — are not necessarily profound or new. For me, however, they are real and as I return to them regularly in my work and personal life, they have been transformative. They have been a gift. The world of knowledge is massive. Learning something new is a key part of this gift. I’ve long recognized that we live in a world of Weberian “iron cages,” siloed into separate tribes. Listening to my interviewees challenge accepted wisdom inspired me to buck trends, forget the metanarratives, and break free from those cages confining our intellect and spirit. Stories are the most precious things we can possess. Create many of your own and share them widely – and wildly. After close to nineteen years at the Oral History Center, I am departing to do just that: to focus on living new stories and ever striving to tell them better.
Oral History Center
Acting Associate Director (2012-2016)
From the Oral History Center Director — July 2021
I recently had the pleasure of watching a new documentary film, The Sparks Brothers (2021), which details the solidly unconventional musical career of Ron and Russell Mael, lifetime stalwarts of the band Sparks. This film has everything one might want from a rock and roll documentary: rare footage of live performances, insightful commentary from artists influenced by the band (Beck, Bjork, Weird Al), and a narrative charting several artistic ups and downs. You might watch it and think that you caught an episode of “Behind the Music” (without the cliche visits to Betty Ford) or This is Spinal Tap (the new wave remix). But the thing about this film that really caught my attention — and got me thinking about our work at OHC — is how revealing and edifying a full life history can be (as is done with The Sparks Brothers as well as with many of our oral histories).
Growing up in California in the early 1980s, Sparks originally came to me as another hip, ironic, proudly nerdy Los Angeles new wave band. Surely the first song of theirs I heard was “Cool Places,” an absurdly upbeat synthpop song performed with and co-written by Jane Weidlin of the Go-Go’s. I saved my pennies and soon purchased the album (Sparks in Outer Space) and loved most every song. I followed their career through another few albums then, as teenagers do, moved on to other bands and sounds. To me Sparks remained in my memory as a genre-band — a very good one, but still one of a particular type.
Watching this full-life documentary, however, upset my own memories of this band. It revealed parts of their lives (including telling moments of their childhood) that were unknown to me. It showcased their early years as a Zappa-like freak band, their move to England where they earned fans as glam-rockers, their burgeoning interest in synthesizers and ultimately their collaboration with synth-god Giorgio Moroder, and finally their return to Los Angeles and reincarnation as a new wave band. The film also details the years since the 1980s, which took the pair in even more esoteric musical directions while continuing to win new fans, garner critical accolades, and stage frankly amazing artistic achievements. After watching this video, I am now eager to dig deeper into their music and thus discover bits of pop music past that thus far had been hidden to me. New music need not emanate from this day and age after all.
This is one of the reasons that I think the life history interviews we do at the Oral History Center are so incredibly valuable. When we conduct this type of oral history (ten hours or more with a single individual) we not only have the opportunity to ask the obvious questions (“tell me about the research that led to your Nobel Prize?” “What was it like to win at the Supreme Court?”), we are afforded the freedom to explore the lesser known aspects of a narrator’s life. With the additional hours of interviewing, we can document the narrator’s family background, upbringing, and education. We can detail early career moves that maybe didn’t amount to much but which taught crucial life lessons. We can document failures as well as successes. In my interview with Herb Donaldson, the first gay man appointed as a judge in California, I also learned about his side job as a coffee importer and roaster who gave key advice to a certain coffee shop getting started in Seattle (yes, Starbucks). With former Kaiser Permanente CEO George Halvorson, I got a fascinating account of his establishing a new health system in rural Uganda. And in my in-progress interview with famed Newsweek and Vanity Fair reporter Maureen Orth, there’s a lengthy description of her two years in the Peace Corps. While perhaps not what these people are best known for, these “other projects” not only provide great insight into the individual but often offer useful insights into historical events. Sometimes you think you know the whole story, or at least the most important part of that story. But when you read — or conduct — life history interviews, you soon learn that all parts are important and those less regarded can be the most surprising.
In this spirit of uncovering less known accomplishments, I want to pay tribute to Bancroft staff who recently retired. At the end of June we witnessed the departures of Bancroft Director Elaine Tennant (also a renowned scholar of German literature and culture), Deputy Director Peter Hanff (also a recognized expert in all things Wizard of Oz, which he detailed in his oral history), finance manager Meilin Huang (also the savior of the Oral History Center on many occasions), and photographic curator Jack von Euw (also an excellent curator of many Bancroft exhibits). We bid farewell to these four esteemed colleagues. We hope that retirement adds several new and interesting chapters to already very accomplished lives.
Find these and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, key word, and several other criteria.
Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director, Oral History Center
From the Oral History Center Director
At the Oral History Center, spring begins in mid-January. Usually for OHC staff this means longer lines for morning coffee and scarce parking spots becoming rarer still. While we’re not experiencing these early signs of spring in 2021, we are looking forward to another early seasonal ritual: our annual Introduction to Oral History Workshop.
This year the workshop will differ from those we’ve hosted in the past in two key ways: it will be hosted remotely, so that we remain safely socially-distanced with the added benefit of making is accessible to those who don’t live nearby; the second difference is that it will be held over two days (Friday March 5 and Saturday March 6) to better accommodate those who are in not in the same time zone as Berkeley.
In addition to the slight changes in format this year, OHC faculty will focus more on the practice of remote interviewing. When the pandemic struck about this time last year, we put a hold on our almost-always-in-person oral histories and dedicated ourselves to a study of how we might conduct our interviews remotely while still establishing good rapport with narrators and capturing quality audio and video in our recordings. By August we optimistically put our toes back in the oral history waters by recommencing with our interviews. We’ve learned a great deal in the six plus months (and suffered no major tragedies) so we’re eager to share what we’ve discovered. Although we are all looking forward to the day when in-person interviews are once again the norm, we also recognize that remote interviewing now has a place in our work going forward — and we suspect you’ll want to know about this practice.
Registration is now open for the Introductory Workshop as well as for the Advanced Oral History Institute, held every August. We look forward to seeing you (virtually!) and together pursuing oral history in this strange new world.
Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director
From the Oral History Center Director, December 2020
Resilience is one of those words that the Transcendentalists would Capitalize — and I’m good with that. Oxford Languages (which publishes the multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary) offers two main definitions of Resilience:
- the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness and
- the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.
Strength and flexibility. Google analytics has an interesting tool that proposes to show the prevalence of word use over the centuries. For “Resilience” it finds notable upsurges in the Great Depression, in the wake of 9/11, and the 2008 financial crisis. It’s a word we turn to with aspiration in difficult times. I’ll bet that we’ll see a marked increase in 2020, this difficult year of years, with a global pandemic, unrest in the streets, and a nation starkly divided.
While the word is often used in an aspirational way, to motivate and inspire, when I use it here, it is a fair and accurate description for the perspective and work of the remarkable staff and student employees of the Oral History Center in 2020. The year began with optimism but also challenges — we knew we had our work cut out for us with a large docket of projects to complete alongside the ever-present pressure of being a self-funding research program. Then, by late January, ominous clouds appeared on the horizon and we soon learned that vigorous hand-washing wasn’t going to stop the approaching storm. Not knowing if we’d return to the office in two weeks or … two years … we moved our operations online and became familiar with Zoom — as did most of the world. I’ll admit that those first weeks were difficult, rife with uncertainty and worry, so our virtual staff meetings focused on simply checking in with one another. And I remain thankful for having a group of smart, concerned, and level-headed colleagues to converse with in those early days of isolation. They made that time bearable and helped give me direction as head of the office. Notably, I recognized their Resilience and their readiness to continue to do the work that they are so passionate about.
When it became clear that we weren’t returning to the office anytime soon but that we weren’t quite ready to conduct oral histories virtually (something we always advised against “if at all possible” when we teach best practices), we turned our attention to other important tasks. Shanna Farrell, Amanda Tewes, and Roger Eardley-Pryor each contributed to our ad hoc podcast season, “Coronavirus Relief,” which was less about documenting the virus than about ways in which we were seeking relief from the emotional toll of it. Amanda and Roger, working with stellar Berkeley undergrad Miranda Jiang, completed a project begun pre-pandemic and released the excellent podcast/performance piece, “Rice All the Time.”
The Oral History Center is perhaps a more complex operation than might be apparent from the outside. A massive amount of work goes into the creation of the oral history interviews that you read and/or view on our website. There is of course project development, research, and videography, but there is also managing the complex process of creating, editing, and preparing transcripts that often run several hundred pages and can include forewords, photographs, and multiple appendices. In essence, we’re a small press publishing house that produces all original content. Two years ago we began the process of redesigning and then documenting this back-end operation and that process not only continued but accelerated during the course of this work-from-home year. Communications Manager Jill Schlessinger, with an eye for detail and keen awareness of what needs to be done, helped build this structure, drew up its plans, and then made it work by implementing a new online project management software solution. Likewise, Office Manager David Dunham contributed documentation of the technical side of our work (creating new transcript templates, digitizing analog recordings, writing metadata, etc.) during this time; moreover, he innovated by finding work-arounds for tasks usually done in person that now had to be done remotely. This behind the scenes work is plainly evident in this newsletter, with its abundance of newly released oral histories, completed with the necessary aid of this process during the pandemic.
As it became clear that in-person meetings would largely be prohibited for the foreseeable future, we adopted the spirit of flexibility and resolved to bring the operation fully online and conduct interviews remotely. Paul Burnett and Roger spent many hours studying and testing various options and came up with a workable solution — Paul even hosted an online tutorial which was attended by hundreds and is now available online. We began conducting remote interviews in August and have conducted close to 200 hours of recordings already! If that doesn’t indicate Resilience, I don’t know what does. As one of those interviewers who has benefited from Paul’s research, I can attest that it works; while remote interviewing isn’t the same as in-person interviews, I’ve learned it is still possible to gain a similar sense of familiarity and intimacy as in person. Even more important: all of these essential stories are getting preserved, the importance of this is glaring in the face of the fact that well more than 300,000 Americans will have died of this dreaded virus by year’s end.
The above is clear evidence of the Resilience of the remarkable staff and student employees of the Oral History Center but it doesn’t end there, not by a long shot. Rather than let their student employees go unemployed, David and Jill have devoted many hours to keeping them busy doing important tasks and allowing them to maintain their income. Todd Holmes, returning to the office in July after caring for his wife who sadly passed away, has finished up a number of outstanding projects, including the oral history of Chicano/a Studies and a set interviews with and about esteemed Yale scholar James C. Scott. Shanna was determined to forge ahead with our annual Advanced Oral History Summer Institute, changed by its virtuality but also by the fact that we had a record number of applicants and attendees. Amanda launched the new Women in Politics Oral History Project with a well-attended online panel discussion that featured Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, former SF City Attorney Louise Renne, and Pittsburgh City Councilmember Shanelle Scales-Preston. Paul with Jill’s considerable assistance launched our new educational resources pages (a space you’ll want to watch for exciting developments in 2021). Jill kept our communications program running and robust and thus helped spread word of this great work far and wide. We submitted three major grant applications (fingers crossed!). And, last but not least, Shanna kept this newsletter going with several content-packed releases.
When we look back at 2020 and see that almost predictable upsurge in the frequency of “Resilience,” I’ll know that this word is not only an apt descriptor — toughness and flexibility — for people’s aspirations during difficult times but also an accurate description of how we persevered and rose above to achieve something of real value. Finally, I want to offer my profuse gratitude to our many friends, sponsors, and partners and to Amanda, David, Jill, Paul, Roger, Shanna, and Todd, for making 2020 truly a story of Resilience.
Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director of the Oral History Center
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While we are in the midst of a year without precedent, I am lucky enough to be able to draw upon any number of well worn cliches to describe the current state of the Oral History Center: we’re running on all cylinders, chugging along, moving full steam ahead, and, happily, derailed no more. In this month’s newsletter you’ll see very clear evidence of the work that was accomplished during the months of shelter-in-place: the completion of many long-in-progress oral histories, our first remotely conducted Advanced Oral History Institute, and several other productive initiatives.
We have also moved well beyond the “wrapping up old projects” phase of 2020 and have forged ahead boldly by resuming our core activity of conducting new oral history interviews. Since I last wrote a newsletter column, the OHC team of interviewers has conducted oral histories for our projects with the Getty Trust, East Bay Regional Park District, Sierra Club, and San Francisco Opera—and we’ve done new interviews for our Chicano/a Studies and Women in Politics projects. History cannot wait and we’ve resolved to make progress in spite of the obvious limitations of this strange historical context. As always, we welcome ideas, feedback, and support.
Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director, Oral History Center
Every year as the semester comes to a close, the Oral History Center hosts a very special event. We call the event our annual Commencement celebrating the Oral History Class of that year. We invite campus friends, project partners, and everyone (and their families and friends) whose oral history we completed in the previous year. Every year this has been a joyous and often moving event. Every normal year, I should say, as we were unable to gather our community together this year. So, like almost every other social gathering, we’ve decided to host our commencement virtually by devoting and dedicating this newsletter to the Oral History Class of 2020. In articles within, you’ll be treated to thoughtful reviews by our interviewers on the past year’s oral histories. We’re also including a feature on a podcast produced by undergraduate Miranda Jiang, which was originally planned to be a live performance at the event. And we’re announcing Ricky Noel as the first winner for the Carmel and Howard Friesen Prize in Undergraduate Oral History Research, which we had hoped to award at the commencement.
This year I’ve also decided to hand over the honor — and the duty — of the commencement address to my very able colleagues at the Oral History Center. Several of the Center’s interviewers have written about their interviews from the previous year, offering well-considered thoughts on what they learned and on what valuable lessons might be drawn from those voices now preserved in our archive. These four “commencement addresses” are worth reading on their own, but taken together they offer a compelling answer to the question: why is oral history unique, or perhaps better, what can oral history uniquely teach me?
Amanda Tewes focuses on her several interviews for the Getty Trust Oral History Project and reveals that conducting interviews — and setting the framework for conducting successful ones — has taught her a great deal about humility, and how humility takes work and planning. Roger Eardley-Pryor contributed a thoughtful piece showing how oral histories uniquely show how expertise is rarely a solitary achievement but one that is possible because of mentorship, collaboration, and even rivalry. Shanna Farrell centers her many interviews for the East Bay Regional Park District project and highlights the many diverse people who need to work together to make something that we too often take for granted — in this case, open space and parklands. Finally, Paul Burnett reflects on the moments in interviews when narrators revealed a failing — personally or institutionally — and struggled with how to respond and how to accept responsibility. I think each of these “commencement addresses” demonstrate not only the breadth and depth of OHC’s collections but also, and equally importantly, that contained within these interviews are innumerable lessons learned and now shared over the narrators’ collective hundreds (or thousands) of years of experience. They show that we are capable of making mistakes but also correcting them, that we change as we grow and often strive to do better. I am thankful for these contributions by my amazing colleagues, as well as for a culture of open dialog that allows people to acknowledge past difficulties without sanction as they themselves pursue a better path forward.
Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Oral History Center
Announcing 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.
From the OHC Director — May 2020
I’m not the only one who has noticed that days seem to have become indistinguishable from one another — that the everyday cycles of life have become something of a blur. Thankfully there are still reminders of change and growth. At my home in Sonoma County, where I’ve been doing my SIP, we had a peek at summer last week when temperatures jumped unto the upper 80s and where, in my garage, my very first brood of chicks is quickly becoming a gang of unruly teenagers. And while our campus remains closed, another school year is just about wrapped up and with it (remote) celebrations for our graduating seniors. In recent years, we’ve worked with an increasing number of undergrads as employees and as apprentices and this year we commend and congratulate these Golden Bears for their contributions to our campus and achievements in the classroom: Gurshaant Bassi, Emily Keats, Nidah Khalid, Emily Lempko, Devin Lizardi, JD Mireles, Kendall Stevens, and Calvin Tang.
Last month in the April newsletter, I wrote about how the Center’s staff was working to bring our usual face-to-face operations into the Zoom Age by exploring the viability of high-quality online interviewing. Our working group, consisting of Paul Burnett, David Dunham, and Roger Eardley-Pryor, has devoted many hours to considering the possibilities and testing the options. I’m very pleased to report that they have developed a menu of workable options that accommodate the varying technological capabilities of our diverse set of narrators, as well as should meet the high expectations of our partners. I’m also very happy to report that at least one of our partner organizations has agreed to sponsor an online life history interview with a key individual in their organization’s history. As the OHC working group tests and fine-tunes their methods, they are documenting the specific processes and writing instructions. Once we’re confident that we’ve found the best possible process (given our uncertain and changing circumstances) we will happily share this with the oral history community. More than anything, we want to continue to do the important work of documenting lives and recording stories so that vital first person accounts of these remarkable and trying times are not lost to history — and we want you to be able to continue this work too!
Speaking of retrofitting for the ‘new normal,’ we are bringing other initiatives online too. Our Summer Institute this year is going virtual, for one. Registration is now open and keep in touch for more information on how the 2020 Institute is going to be run. Moreover, the May newsletter is usually our opportunity to celebrate and express our gratitude for those we interviewed during the previous year. Every April for the past six years, we’ve hosted an “Oral History Commencement,” that brought these folks together for a joyous event on the Berkeley campus. Alas, we’ve had to cancel the event for 2020 but still want to pay due attention to our narrators from the Oral History Class of 2020! Please come back next month for our virtual celebration of those who contributed their time and stories to the ever-growing Oral History Center collection.
Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director
From the OHC Director, April 2020
I’ve been thinking a great deal of late about what it means to live a life connected or disconnected or perhaps something in between. I suspect I’m not alone in pondering these states of being — a kind of remote engagement that itself feels a little bit like connection.
Oral history is about many things: listening, documenting, questioning, recording, explaining. I think connection is always key to the work that we do as oral historians. But like many other operations, including basically all non-medical research projects that involve humans, our work conducting interviews is largely shut-down while we consider how best to forge ahead.
My colleagues and I have always valued the importance of the in-person, face-to-face interviewing experience. We regularly travel across the country at some considerable expense just so we can be in the same room with the person we are interviewing. We have found this time in close proximity with our narrators to be priceless. Not only does this allow us to shake hands, look eye-to-eye, and gauge body language just before and during the interview, but also these are practices that, until recently, have been second nature — we usually do them without thinking much about it. There really is an unconscious kind of dance that happens, especially when meeting someone for the first time, that in most instances results in a spontaneously choreographed fluidity that can carry the ensuring interview through fond memories and bad. Because of this, up to this point, only when it really was impossible to meet in person have we conducted an interview over the phone or online.
But times change. The current health crisis has profoundly rearranged social relationships, and likely for some time into the future. (Dr. Fauci even suggested that we rethink the practice of shaking hands, which, I’ll admit, makes me sad.) The Oral History Center staff have been scattered now for over a month. But we have endeavored to not lose touch with one another. Thanks to multifarious technological options, we have easily transitioned our weekly staff meetings online. We use either Google Hangouts or Zoom and, so far, everyone has used video, so we get to hear each other’s voices and see faces too. We sometimes have agenda items that require lengthy discussion, at other times we simply check in with each other about work but also about “how things are going.” We live in different settings so people have different challenges and we do our best to touch on those. I also chat every week with each of my colleagues individually and I’m very pleased to know that my colleagues have been meeting with each other, doing their best to push projects forward. The success of these virtual meetings, and, well, the zeitgeist, inspired me to set up virtual happy hours with friends and family. My family lives across the country and it’s been probably four years since we’ve been in the same room together but for the past two weeks we’ve all gathered online to check in, tell stories, have some laughs, get serious and, of course, get photobombed by various kids and dogs. We don’t escape the underlying gravity of the current situation, but this hasn’t stopped connection — in some real ways it has promoted it.
So, with this in mind, we are exploring the options for bringing our oral history back to life by bringing it online. We’re currently testing out various options for video and audio recording, paying close attention to everything from quality of recording to ease of use (considering that most people we interview don’t fit within the “digital native” demographic). We also are sensitive to the dimension of personal connection, rapport, and understanding, but given recent experiences “at” home and “in” the office, we have reason to be optimistic. The reasons for going online are not only about opportunity, they are much deeper and in some ways quite profound: every day, every month that passes, we lose an opportunity to interview someone who should have had the opportunity to tell their story. In fact, we just learned the very sad news that artist and advocate of Black artists, David Driskell, passed away due to complications from COVID-19. This was a man with a story to be told — and thankfully, with our partners at the Getty Trust, we conducted his oral history last year. We simply cannot wait out this epidemic and let it steal stories along with lives.
The second profound reason is related to something I’ve mentioned rather delicately here in the past: that the Oral History Center is a soft-money institution. What that means is we are basically a non-profit that earns its money (allowing us to do our work) by conducting interviews. The longer we are prevented from conducting oral histories, the more precarious our position becomes. We hope for but do not anticipate relief from the university, the state, or the federal government. All we want is to resume the good work of documenting our shared and individual experiences in times of growth and times of challenge — to continue the work that we’ve done for the past 66 years.
As we consider the path ahead, the Oral History Center staff continues to work vigorously albeit remotely. We’re finishing the production process on dozens of interviews that have been conducted already — that is, writing tables of contents, working with narrators on edits for accuracy and clarity, creating the final transcripts for bound volumes and open access on our websites. We continue to process original audio and video recordings so that they can be uploaded to our online oral history viewer. We’re writing blog posts about oral history and producing podcasts, including our newest and very topical season, Coronavirus Relief. Plus in addition to the regular work, we’re using this opportunity to focus on long desired projects: We’re creating curriculum for high schools; we’re writing abstracts for old interviews that never had them; and we’re using this time to think about new projects and write grant proposals so that when the time comes, we’ll be ready to go full steam ahead.
Check back here next month for more on our efforts to move oral history online. We’ll share our results publicly as many others are venturing into this domain too — and have themselves made important contributions to the conversation (I especially recommend checking out the free Baylor / OHA webinar on “Oral History at a Distance”). Until then, we sincerely hope that everyone this newsletter reaches stays safe, healthy, and able to remain connected to those who are important to you.
Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director, Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library
From the Director — March 2020
From all of us at the Oral History Center, we are wishing you our best in these challenging times. We hope that you’re doing your best to get through the coming days, and above all, you and your loved ones are staying safe and healthy.
In a recent oral history, George Miller discussed the idea of the dreaded “Black Swan” event that might strike at a moment’s notice, leaving destruction and disruption in its wake. But Miller has artfully crafted a healthy sense of informed detachment and thus always used these events as an opportunity for learning and reflection. Perhaps the greatest lesson from the Black Swan events he experienced in the world of finance was that we always came out the other side — maybe a bit bruised but ready to face another day. So, as many of us sit at home, self-isolating, I invite you to take a break from the constant news feed of what is happening right now and instead spend some time in the past. Delve into the OHC archive of transcripts and recordings and expose yourself, for example, to many individuals who achieved great things in their lives but who each experienced Black Swan events of their own. Trial and turbulence, patience and perseverance.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the most remarkable of these stories come from women we’ve interviewed, in particular those women who broke glass ceilings in the workplace and the realm of politics. We’re currently developing a database documenting the hundreds of women we’ve interviewed over the years who were connected to the University of California — as part of the 150 Years of Women at Berkeley celebration. And we continue to contribute to this history with plenty of recent interviews, including female students who were active in the SLATE organization on campus in the 1950s and 60s. And then many more interviews with women who persevered while working in support of the arts (Kathleen Dardes), the environment (Michelle Perrault), and public service (Anne Halsted). You’ll see a handful of those stories referenced in this newsletter but I encourage you to just jump in, browse the collection (our Projects page is the best way to do this), and allow the thousands of life stories we’ve collected give you reassurance, perspective, and company.
Finally, we’ve made the decision to postpone our annual Oral History Commencement in which we invite our interviewees to campus for a lively celebration of oral histories completed in the past year. We still want to express our gratitude to our narrators, so stayed tuned.
Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director of the Oral History Center