Oral history project’s new director envisions future Center for Living History

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs


Richard Cándida Smith, new director of the campus’s Regional Oral History Office.
Noah Berger photo

06 February 2002 | Richard Cándida Smith, Berkeley’s new Regional Oral History Office director, has a vision for the future, in which the oral history collection is more tightly woven into the tapestry of teaching and research on campus.

It may take some time to change a 54-year-old institution, but the professor of history believes that undergraduate and graduate education can be more meaningful if students are exposed to the history makers themselves.

To achieve his mission, Cándida Smith envisons a new oral history center, called the Bancroft Library’s Center for Living History, to give students practical skills in conducting their research projects and in tapping the experiences of their own communities.

“I believe that undergraduate involvement will lead to new collecting priorities, as students connect the campus with new communities whose histories should be included in the Bancroft collections,” he said.

Cándida Smith, who holds a joint appointment in the history department, thinks Berkeley’s Regional Oral History Program Office offers the perfect foundation for undertaking his mission.

“ROHO already provides a particularly rich set of sources for a broad variety of studies examining social transformation in different domains and practices,” he said. “Its collections span a lengthy period of time covering the past two centuries.”

Building on campus’s oral history legacy
The Bancroft oral collections, in fact, include the many interviews done by Hubert Howe Bancroft, who gathered oral testimonies in the 1860s and 1870s for his multi-volume history of California and western North America.

Complementing the library’s holdings, ROHO’s collections include oral histories going back as far as the beginning of the 20th century. All combined, the program contains about 1,800 oral histories and completes an additional 100 each year.

Cándida Smith’s new center would build upon that legacy.

“Whether we speak of social and political movements, economic transformation, migrations of labor and capital, cultural and intellectual ferment, California has been an epicenter for global developments since its origins. And our collections already document that,” he said from his Bancroft Library office, which is lined with books, dissertations and historical publications. “Future work should build upon that archive to present an increasingly textured picture of the experience of California life across generations.”

ROHO’s ongoing series — documenting California agriculture and natural resources, such as the wine and mining industries, water and land use, forestry, horticulture and the environmental movement — would continue. Meanwhile, he hopes to initiate several new, large-scale projects, most in collaboration with other units on campus or with off-campus institutions.

The new center, he says, would work to increase the opportunities available to students — in the form of oral history courses, specially organized classes and financial support for student contributions to the program.

Cándida Smith teaches one of only two campus courses emphasizing oral history techniques — “American Lives, American History.” As the center gets under way, he plans to add more courses offering oral history training and to invite prominent scholars to spend time on campus as visiting faculty.

“With the cooperation of departments and other teaching programs on campus, the new center will launch an academic program that realizes the value oral history research can have for undergraduate and graduate education,” he said.

Cándida Smith’s affinity for preserving the spoken history of the West reaches back to his academic roots. He earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in United States history from UCLA, and worked there for nearly a decade as associate director of the Oral History Program. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1992, he spent eight years at the University of Michigan, rising through the ranks to full professor. He came to Berkeley to head the Regional Oral History Office last year, succeeding Willa Baum, the program’s first director.

Stepping into the future
The proposed center would meet the future by developing video capabilities to supplement already-completed online transcripts.

“We’ve begun using video camcorders in some of our new projects,” Cándida Smith said.

For starters, the office is incorporating multimedia technology into its work on the life and times of San Francisco conceptual artist David Ireland, who has turned his historic Victorian home into a developing “art performance.” For this project, the office is collaborating with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which has acquired the house and plans to turn it into an off-site center.

Walking through the many rooms of Ireland’s Capp Street house, observers notice that the walls have been stripped to reveal the wooden frame; paint, wallpaper and floor varnishes have been removed, and some of the materials stored in jars, to document the many times in which the home’s interior “look and feel” has changed. Ireland calls this labor of love an “art performance,” designed to reveal what has happened to the house over its lifetime.

The artist’s “art performance” is Suzanne Riess’s first foray into the art of videotaping. A staff interviewer and art historian, she is midway through the Ireland interviews.

“We are using this interview to experiment with how to use video creatively while exploring the different forms artistic biography might take,” she said. “We’re using digital mini-camcorders and moving around the house while we interview him.”

The completed transcript will be available, along with video clips, an audio recording and a web site for the Ireland collection.

Videotaped interviews
Sally Hughes, who has been working on the “Genentech” project, part of an effort to document the history of biotechnology in the Bay Area, said videotaping will open a new window on history for future scholars and students.

“We’re throwing our nets very wide right now and exploring new forms of oral history materials [videotape] with eventual purposes we can’t even define at the moment.”

“Imagine a video clip of Willie Brown 50 years from now,” Hughes said. “Just his body language and how he acts would add information.”

Because the arts lend themselves to videotape more readily than other endeavors, other new oral history projects, such as a series on the distinctive style of blues that grew up in West Oakland, are likely to appear in video format first.

There the first electric bluesman, T-Bone Walker, was getting his start — playing alongside fellow guitarists Lowell Fulson and Jimmy McCracklin and accompanying blues singers like Sugarpie DeSanto. Bebop, scat singing and a sound unlike the Delta-based R&B of the ’30s, were rocking the local hotspots like Ester’s Orbit Room and Slim Jenkins Supper Club. The collection eventually will include the oral histories of all of these local blues giants.


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