OHC’s November 2021 Director’s Guest Column: “Power, Empathy, and Respect in Oral History” by Paul Burnett

“So oral history is interviewing.” I get this a lot from people who are trying to understand what I do for a living. Yes, the interview is the primary way in which we gather our historical data, our stories. When people think of interviews in general, however, they might think of the police interrogation, the oral examination in schools, the journalist’s scoop, even an anthropologist’s study of a community, amongst other examples. Near the end of his life, philosopher Michel Foucault was hoping to do a large research project on the interview and the examination as sites of power relations. He could not have been more astute. In each of the examples above, control rests almost completely with the interviewer. The interviewers extract information from the narrator for their own purposes, often without consideration of the interests of the narrator, and sometimes directly against their interests. Sometimes narrators are allowed to see the resulting work; often they are not consulted.

By contrast, oral history as a disciplinary academic practice and as a social movement begins and ends with the problem of power. It’s not that we can get rid of power; power is interwoven through our relationships. Oral history methods acknowledge power relations as a problem to be managed, helping to ensure that the narrators tell the stories they want to tell. We begin with a process of informed consent, so that narrators know what to expect from beginning to end, and that they have the power to withdraw from the work at any moment, even after the project is finished. We then engage in a period of planning and research. Although a spontaneous, cold interview might seem more authentic, what happens in those cases is that the narrator is often at sea in their memories, their real-time decision-making about how to present themselves, and their anxiety about which stories to tell, in how much detail, and with what words. And then we are right back to the problem of the interviewer controlling the scene. By collaboratively planning in advance, the narrator and interviewer build a bond of trust and a plan around the nature of the storytelling.

And when the interview happens, we can both relax, and that’s where it becomes spontaneous. I call it “planned spontaneity,” with a heavy debt to Miles Davis’ approach to “controlled freedom” in jazz performance. Telling a story is like singing; it is singing. It can be an emotional performance of your deepest truths. I’d be tempted to say that the interviewer is the impresario in this metaphor, arranging things so that the narrator’s story shines. But my ideal role would be to serve as both the room and the audience, to let the narrator hear their own voice reflected from the back of the hall, and to see and sense the audience’s engagement with the performance. Ask any singer, and that’s what they need for a good performance; they need feedback from the audience and to hear their own voices.

That’s why, during the interview, I “read back” what I’m hearing periodically to give real-time feedback. But we also transcribe the interview so that the narrator can review what they have said and decide if that is the final form of the story, making changes as needed. Then we ask them to sign off on the finished product, with some guarantee of access to the narrator and their communities. All of these practices together form a set of protections that maximize the narrator’s power in forming, telling, and preserving stories for the future.

The problem of power might be mitigated by this set of practices, but power is always unfinished business. There is the history of the interview itself, whose reputation for extraction, exploitation, and manipulation is not lost on many communities. There is the university, a site of state, political, and economic power, and the authority to include or exclude that hangs over the interview. Anthropologist Michel Rolph-Trouillot wrote about the ways in which the decision about what gets included in archives is the first and perhaps most important violence done to history. Narrators and interviewers come to the interview within multiple, overlapping sets of power relations, exclusions, and hierarchies that threaten to distort and even block trustful communication.

For the interviewer’s part, there are two basic orientations that help with – but do not solve – these problems. The first is empathy. I have interviewed a lot of powerful people, people who might seem from a distance invulnerable, privileged, at ease. I hate to sound obvious, but everyone has experienced exclusion, denigration, and trauma of some kind in their lives, often of many kinds. Sometimes exclusion is a source of pride; but it is most often a source of pain. I have a lot of power and privilege, but I can tap into experiences of the exercise of arbitrary authority, exclusions, bullying, violence and trauma in order to attempt to connect to those who have experienced far greater violence, who have lived lifetimes inside social structures of exclusion and trauma. But if we amplify voices of the excluded, we have to understand that connecting and collecting can too easily end up as claiming and taking.

Empathy is only one part of it. That assumption of some kind of access to another’s experience is another problem of power and privilege. Interviewers also have to begin with the assumption that vast oceans of human experience elude them. Research can help, but a fundamental orientation of humility and respect is required to establish a bond of trust with a narrator. Is there some core of human experience that we all share? Of course. But history shunts us all into patterns of human experience that are both radically different and arranged in a long list of intersectional hierarchies of arbitrary value – race, class, gender identity and orientation, citizenship, disability, body politics, and surely more structures which we as a society have yet to recognize, never mind address. All of that comes into play in the interview encounter, and it may determine whether the interview happens at all. A humility before this pageant of exclusion is the necessary companion to empathy.

What I’m presenting here isn’t new. The oral history community has been wrestling with these questions for a long time, especially with its frequently expressed commitment to using oral history to explore those hierarchies of value, to shine a light on and validate the experiences of the excluded and the othered. Although I’m an oral historian, I’m also a historian of science. One of the things I’m interested in is how disciplines define themselves. One of the patterns about knowers in a discipline is that they are sometimes poor interpreters of their own origins and practices. Researchers often have the hardest time seeing the very spot from which they observe. It may be precisely because of their commitment to reflexivity that oral historians may not be able to see, or perhaps hear, these challenges. We check our audio equipment, but sometimes we don’t check how we are listening, or whether we’re able to hear something at all. Our most important listening equipment is between our ears, or maybe inside our chests, and limited by our lived experience and frames of reference. What we need to continually re-examine and affirm is our commitment to empathy, humility, and trust in our work.


OHC Director’s Column, October 2019

by Martin Meeker


Recording, transcribing, and making oral histories accessible represents only a portion of the work that we do at the Oral History Center. We relish the opportunity to engage with these raw historical materials and fashion them into a variety of interpretative works too. 

The 4,000 oral histories in our collection have been used by OHC staff in the writing of conference papers, articles, and books for sure. And while we remain committed to our mission of creating quality first-person historical accounts that might be used in the most rigorous of academic studies, we also recognize—and applaud—the use of these interviews across a much broader field. Now, OHC interviews are used in podcasts, documentary films, dramatic productions, and more.

Bob Walker Photo
Photo by Bob Walker, courtesy of the East Bay Regional Park District

As the ability to preserve, edit, and distribute audio and video productions becomes ever easier, ever more democratized, we at OHC have also utilized these resources to create videos and podcasts that draw heavily upon the collection. We are on the verge of releasing our fifth podcast season, Hidden Heroes. This one focuses on the East Bay Regional Park District and is being produced by Shanna Farrell and Francesca Fenzi. Previous seasons have looked at the history of the University of California at 150 years, the early response to AIDS in San Francisco, and the long history of women in politics. 

Our main goal with these podcasts is to offer robust yet widely accessible narrative interpretations—pivotal moments in history that our collection can illuminate. We are historians, and this is what we do. But we also have an important alternate motivation (or two) in spending hundreds of hours required to produce these podcasts. While our 4,000 oral histories (amounting to tens of thousands of hours of interviews) are readily accessible through our website, we are well aware that, say, a 30 hour interview with a scientist might be a tad overwhelming and many who could find something of real value in these life histories might never know to look there. With these podcasts and the many other interpretive materials we create, we are seeking to distribute breadcrumbs around the internet—breadcrumbs that might lead users back to the collection and back to the lengthy but otherwise invisible oral histories. We know that there are many people who are passionate about history but who aren’t trained researchers. These breadcrumbs help steer these folks toward these free and substantive and lively interviews.

I know I can speak for the whole oral history team at Berkeley that we endeavor not just to create excellent interviews in collaboration with our narrators but that we strive to make that work known to the widest public possible.

OHC Director’s Column, June 2019



Here at Berkeley it feels a lot like we skipped spring this year entirely, moving quickly from a cold and wet winter to gloriously warm and sunny days. Unlike much of the campus, the Oral History Center doesn’t exactly shut down during the summer, but we do switch gears a bit.

In recent years we’ve come to rely increasingly on the workplace contributions of our amazing student employees. In fact, over the past year, we’ve benefited from the hard work of eighteen Berkeley students. They’ve worked on a variety of projects and tasks, from creating metadata for oral history video now streaming online to drafting tables of contents for our transcripts, plus a whole lot more. With this particular change of seasons, we sadly say goodbye to a number of excellent students — while also congratulating them on graduating! —  including Maggie Deng, Cindy Jin, Carla Palassian, and Marisa Uribe.

Summer also typically means travel for those working at the university. Travel, as it turns out, has become a regular feature of life year-round at the Oral History Center in recent years. Our Getty Trust oral history project has had several interviewers traveling to New York and Los Angeles to do their work, the Chicano/a Studies project has sent us to various in the West and Southwest, and our oral history with former California Governor Jerry Brown means regular overnight trips to his ranch outside of Williams, California, for some pretty intense interview sessions. Oral history at Berkeley is no longer just a local or, even regional, affair. We follow our research to where the good, important, and impactful stories are located, no matter what the season.

Thinking about the change of seasons also reminds me of that moving passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes, brought into popular culture in the 1960s by the Byrds in their song “Turn Turn Turn”: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” I think of this now, a day after the passing Herb Sandler, a narrator I worked with very closely over the past three years on his lengthy life history interview, and a broader project that resulted in another 18 interviews. Herb was a giant in whatever work he pursued. He was always deeply involved, passionately motivated, prophet-like in his indignations, compassionate beyond reason, and never ever considered retirement as an option. I join the chorus of those who express sadness at seeing him leave us, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with him to document his life’s work.

Compared to many institutions, the university remains closely tied to the seasons. And while the staff of the Oral History Center doesn’t follow the academic calendar as would an academic department, we are deeply affected by the seasons and by the cycles of life — by the arrival and departure of our student employees, by the beginning of an oral history and by the passing of a respected narrator. As I type this, looking over me from 20 stories up are Carson and Cade, two peregrine falcon chicks whose lives, up until this week, were lived on a precipice of Sather Tower. Now, they are in flight, beginning to explore the world around them.

-Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director, Oral History Center, UC Berkeley

OHC Director’s Column, April 2019

“Class of 1931” Interviews

Documenting the history of the University of California is an endeavor that we take very seriously at the Oral History Center. As a result of our work over the past sixty-five years, we have conducted hundreds of in-depth interviews in which some key facet, influential individual, or impactful event of the university is narrated and explained. Hundreds more interviews (1,995 according to our search tool) at least mention the university in passing, providing anecdotes that further expand the archive of first-personal testimony about the university. The University of California’s history is among the best documented in the world because these numerous and diverse voices were recorded by the Oral History Center and archived at the Bancroft Library.

All the more remarkable is that we have done this work with very little dedicated university support. Certainly we have received occasional funding from the UC Office of the President,  this or that college or department, or a benefactor who wants to underwrite a specific interview. These type donations, in fact, are responsible for the vast majority of University of California oral histories that we’ve done, and we are grateful for the continued support of those who recognize a need for an interview and work with us to make it happen.

This works well enough, except in those instances in which we identify a key individual who needs to be interviewed but for whom there is no clear benefactor, or for documenting groups of people who have been left out of the mainstream historical narrative. In order to capture these oral histories, we have devoted the funds of one of our endowments to support an annual oral history in university history. The “Class of 1931” annual interview about university history is selected through a nomination process. Nominees are selected based on willingness of the nominee to participate, OHC interviewer expertise, uniqueness and rarity of the nominee’s story and level of contribution to campus life, and the generation of the nominee. Since we began this initiative, we have interviewed Laura Nader, Susan Ervin-Tripp, and others.

Laura NaderErvin Tripp


If you know of an individual who has made an important contribution to the campus (as a staff, faculty, or administrator) and has not been adequately recognized for their work, please consider nominating that person for the “Class of 1931” annual interview in university history. Nominations are due by May 1, 2019.


Martin Meeker

Charles B. Faulhaber Director

Oral History Center

From the Director: October 2018

OHC Director Martin Meeker shares his work with the Oral History Association to update its core documents outlining best practices and ethical standards for the field. The committee, which Meeker is a part of, is seeking feedback through  which is open for public comment through October 12, 2018. 

Every decade or so, the Oral History Association (OHA) has convened a group of oral historians to examine, reconsider, and, often, redraft its core documents outlining best practices and ethical standards for the field. When Todd Moye assumed the presidency of OHA last fall, he announced that just such a project would be a key feature of his term. Soon a task force of fourteen members, including the excellent chairs Sarah Milligan and Troy Reeves, was established and a series of online meetings commenced. I was honored to be asked to serve on the task force and was very happy to work alongside so many accomplished scholars and dedicated oral historians.

Working fairly intensely for about nine months, the task force ultimately drafted six documents. Of those six, four are key. These include: Core Principles, Statement on Ethics, Best Practices, and what the committee is calling “For Participants in Oral History Interviews.” All of the documents are available for everyone to read online and the comment period remains open until October 12. Members of OHA will have the chance to give an up or down vote on the proposed new documents at the business meeting during upcoming OHA annual meeting on Saturday October 13.

As a member of the task force and as a deeply committed oral historian, I want to encourage everyone to engage with these documents both now and when, presumably, they are adopted. Unlike some previous iterations of these documents, the 2018 editions basically offer a full scale rethinking and rewrite of what came before. While there was much useful and insightful material in the previous versions and they served the organization well for years, many task force members thought that those documents both attempted to do “too much” and “too little.” I think that means that there were some pretty detailed prescriptions that were difficult to apply widely (“too much”) and yet much of what was written was a bit too vague and thus was difficult to implement in specific settings (“too little”). The current task force sought to remedy this, and we certainly hope that readers today agree.

The task force wrestled with a number of other questions that are either new or have become newly important over the past decade (the current version was adopted in October 2009). Not surprisingly, technology is at the top of the list. One way in which we attempted to deal with continuous technological innovation was to think about the universal questions and issues that the new innovations have summoned. In other words, we avoided getting into the weeds and writing specific instructions for the situation today because we know things will continue to evolve, and at a rapid rate. Although oral historians have long been aware of the potential challenges and needs that come with interviewing across lines of difference, there is certainly a greater sensitivity to “privilege” today, and the task force kept these concerns foremost when doing our work. But as with technology, we attempted to be open and not write the document so that it speaks only to one type of difference, privilege, or associated challenge, and instead provided guidelines and insight into the best way to handle sensitive relationships in a variety of situations.

When you read the documents, I encourage you to read first Sherna Berger Gluck’s “Introduction,” which provides a useful and tidy history of these documents over the decades, thus putting the newest versions in context. I think I can speak for my fellow task members in saying that we hope the work that we’ve done is received well and is seen as useful and valuable for, perhaps, the next 10 years.


Martin Meeker

Charles B. Faulhaber Director

OHC Director’s Column, September 2018

How Soon is Now?

Martin Meeker, @MartinDMeeker

Charles B. Faulhaber Director

Recently I was greeted with the unfortunate news that one of my narrators had passed away. My sadness was tempered by the fact that this man, Ed Howden, lived a very long life (he died just shy of 100 years) that was filled with many good accomplishments. He was a stalwart advocate of civil rights from his years heading up the Council for Civic Unity in 1940s and 50s San Francisco through his service as the first staff director of the California Fair Employment Practices Commission in the 1950s and 60s, and later, while working for the US Department of Justice.

There was plenty to talk about when I interviewed him in late 2016 and early 2017. But, by that time he was in his late 90s and many of the events we discussed had happened decades earlier. This experience got me thinking deeply about the “when” of oral history interviewing: when is the optimal time to interview someone? Is there a point when the time has passed?

First off, I feel it important to say I was honored to have the opportunity to interview Howden and, if you read his transcript, I’m sure you’ll agree that it is packed full of fascinating insights and first person accounts of transformative moments and trends in California. But there are also moments of forgetfulness and lack of precision, which was understandable. I had originally invited Howden for an interview in 2005, shortly after I arrived at Berkeley and having been awarded a small grant for a project about human rights commissions. Howden, as it turns out, was caring for his ailing wife at the time, so the interview was delayed by over 10 years. How would the interview have been different had I got to interview him then, or even years before? Howden was 97 when we began our recordings, and his was a valuable interview, I think.

Conversely, is an individual ever “too young” to be interviewed? I know of one project in which oral historians interviewed children, which must have been interesting! While I doubt the OHC will take on that demographic anytime soon, I have interviewed people substantially younger than me (I’m on the mature side of my 40s) and while a long (12+ hour) life history might better be done down the road, all of those interviews were interesting and strong on detail. What is potentially missing in terms of long range historical perspective is compensated for by quickness of recollection, ease with specifics, and strength in accuracy. Those interviews were shorter (typically 2 hours) and highly focused, but I think that they will prove exceedingly useful for scholars and others who are looking for more factual accounts on the topics at hand.

So, there may be no firm rule of thumb on the matter. If you are about to embark on a project in which you anticipate interviewing people of a certain age, it is a good idea to inform yourself of the potential limitations you could encounter on either end of the spectrum. If you plan on asking questions about events decades in the past, know that your narrator might remember little or misremember specifics: know that you’ll get a present perspective on past events, informed by decades of life experience. Also be aware of the potential for cognitive issues to crop up that, in extreme circumstances, might result in confusion, frustration, or other difficult moments for the narrator. Take care to recognize these signs and slow or end the interview if necessary. Memory is a fleeting thing.

We practice a pretty rigorous version of oral history at Berkeley, asking often probing questions and hitting back with follow-up questions that require additional reflective thought. This kind of intense interviewing might not be appropriate for some potential narrators because of health, age, or a combination thereof. On occasion, we turn down an oral history opportunity and instead recommend that the individual participate in a life-review interview: a type of interview best done by someone who knows the narrator well and gently guides that person through stories that they have told before. Oral historians, like other researchers who work with “human subjects,” are obliged to “do no harm” when going about their work.

Several interesting oral history projects have shown that our memories of events change, modulate, or even disappear not solely because of the wear and tear of time or illness but because we think anew about old events and we tend rewrite our own interpretations of things if not the very facts period. Given how we create and recreate memory as we live, maybe the “when” question doesn’t matter too much? This is worth more thought, I bet.

Clearly there is a lot to think about and much more to be said on this matter. The best first step is to try to get to know your narrator a bit before beginning the interview to determine if that person would not only contribute to existing knowledge but would get something out of the oral history process too.

As always, we at the OHC are thinking and rethinking our methodology and welcome your thoughts and feedback.