The Roots of the Oral History Center
by Charles Faulhaber, Interim Director of The Bancroft Library
As we bid farewell to 2021, I’ve been thinking about the power of first-person accounts and the meaning of oral history within The Bancroft Library’s collections. Bancroft’s Oral History Center was founded in 1953 by Robert Gordon Sproul, President of the University of California, as the Regional Oral History Office, “regional” because there was one at Berkeley for northern California and one at UCLA for southern California.
In fact, however, Bancroft’s oral history roots lie much deeper than that. As early as the 1860s, San Francisco bookdealer Hubert Howe Bancroft, the founder of The Bancroft Library, was traveling extensively up and down the Pacific Coast and back to the East Coast in order to record “dictations,” his interviews with the men, and some women, who had made the West their home. In Utah he interviewed Mormon leaders while his wife, Matilda Griffings Bancroft, interviewed their wives. On a trip to Pennsylvania he interviewed John Sutter, bitter over the failure of the federal government to compensate him for the loss of his extensive land grants in the gold-rich foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
Later, as Bancroft’s plans for a monumental history of California and the American West—eventually 39 massive volumes—crystallized, he hired staff to record dictations with the Californios, the Spaniards and Mexicans who had colonized Alta California from 1769 onward, men like Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, the last Mexican commandant of the Presidio in San Francisco, as well as with native Americans, like Isidora Filomena, the wife of chief Solano of the Suisun tribe.
Bancroft believed that these contemporaneous oral accounts provided an essential complement to the written sources in his library, which he eventually sold to the University of California in 1905. This is the same philosophy that informs the activities of the Oral History Center today. The thousands of oral histories that have been recorded in the almost seventy years since the Center was founded inform and enrich the printed and manuscript documentation collected by Bancroft’s curators.
Thus the series of oral histories of Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II has proved to be a fundamental resource for Bancroft’s current exhibition, “UPROOTED: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans,” which also draws from Bancroft’s extensive collection of documents, photographs, and family and personal papers. This exhibition commemorates the 80th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which ordered the incarceration of all Japanese Americans on the West Coast, including American citizens, some 113,000 individuals.
I invite you to visit this powerful exhibit at The Bancroft Library Gallery when it re-opens briefly from January 10-21 and then again from February 17, 2022 through June 30, 2022, and hear first-hand the words of the uprooted, preserved for posterity through oral history.
The Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library has interviews on just about every topic imaginable. You can find the interviews mentioned here and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. Search by name, keyword, and several other criteria. The Oral History Center preserves voices of people from all walks of life, with varying political perspectives, national origins, and ethnic backgrounds. We are committed to open access and our oral histories and interpretive materials are available online at no cost to scholars and the public.