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ROHO makes hidden voices heard

| 27 August 2003


Richard Cándida Smith (left), director of the Bancroft Library’s Regional Oral History Office, supervises an operation that maintains and builds upon a collection of some 2,000 interviews relating to California history. Project coordinators like Nadine Wilmot (right) oversee the progress of additions to the collection, which sometimes involves stimulating the memory of interview subjects, or even (gently) challenging those memories to avoid the effects of self-interest.
Bonnie Azab Powell photo

History is written by the victors, goes the saying, and the official record of significant events does seem to favor those who benefit most from their outcome. Yet ascertaining what really happened also means determining what role may have been played by those people not immortalized in newspaper articles, biographies, or carefully archived letters.

That’s where the Regional Oral History Office (ROHO), a division of Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, comes in. “Everyday life is oral, not written,” says Richard Cándida Smith, who since his appointment as ROHO’s director last year has been working to broaden oral history’s acceptance as an indispensable research tool. “We talk at the breakfast table, the bar, in the seminar room. Talk is messy, just like life: it’s interaction and dialogue, not monologue. Oral history provides a window into those experiences.”

Painting a community’s portrait
Often it is a window that no other approach can open. For example, ROHO researchers are working on several projects relating to how the university has handled universal access to education for Californians in this century. In one, Project Coordinator Nadine Wilmot is interviewing 15 African Ameri-cans who were faculty members or senior staff before 1975. “If you were a person of color, the path into the mainstream white academy wasn’t an easy or direct path. There were significant barriers,” she explains. “So much of what happened before affirmative action was not included in the institution’s documentation of hiring practices. Oral history privileges voices that are hidden or silenced.”

And in other cases such as the arts, oral history may be the only record. As part of an earlier, non-ROHO project on the origins of modern dance, Cándida Smith interviewed Bella Lewitzky, a seminal modern dancer who cofounded the Dance Theater of Los Angeles in 1946. Together they spent several hours, he says, reconstructing the costumes, choreography, and music of one of her famous dances, for which only a handful of photographs exist.

The Bancroft Library’s oral history archives date back to the library’s namesake, Hubert Howe Bancroft, who recognized that his vast collection of books, journals, maps, and manuscripts on western North America failed to include the living memories of many of the participants in the development of California and the West. In the 1860s he began interviewing pioneer Westerners; the resulting volumes, called Dictations, remain a valuable primary source for historians.

And since ROHO was formed in 1954, staffers have added 2,000 interviews related to the history of California to the Bancroft’s archives and to more than 700 libraries worldwide for use by historians and other scholars. Within general categories (the arts, community history, university history, etc.) are fascinating interviews with the major players of the Free Speech Movement, black alumni, and the instigators of the Disability Rights Movement. Many of these oral histories can be sampled online (see box). Nowadays, to augment its traditional transcripts, the office is also recording all of its interviews on digital video, which can be edited down for use in museum kiosks or posted on the web as short video and audio clips.

Riveting topics
ROHO’s original mission was to record the memories of the movers and shakers of California, but it has never confined itself to just the history makers. By interviewing multiple witnesses to an event or an entire era, oral historians assemble a mosaic of a community’s mood out of individual perspectives. In the case of ROHO’s ongoing “Rosie the Riveter” project for a museum planned for Rich-mond, a center of shipbuilding and manufacturing during World War II, the researchers wanted to explore the broad effects of war mobilization on the home front and on people’s lives. So in addition to interviewing the “Rosies” — women who went to work in war-time industry doing what had been male jobs, such as in factories — they also talked to women who worked in health and education, or held down office jobs, and to the policemen and firefighters who were dealing with crises over the influx of people into the Richmond area.

“Oral history gets us into a variety of communities and lets us find out what people thought about what happened, through the perspective of individuals,” says Cándida Smith. “If you do multiple interviews, you find the community’s shared values and get a better sense of the its makeup.”

A sense of the subject’s concerns
To the uninitiated, carrying out an oral history project means sitting down with a subject and turning the tape recorder on. There is, of course, a lot more to it. Merely finding the right subject takes more than Google or a trip to the stacks. On a project like Rosie the Riveter, it can take days of asking around neighborhood institutions like churches and barbershops to find witnesses to major events who are still living in the area.

But even when a single source is involved, the challenges don’t evaporate once the source has been identified and coaxed into participating in the project. Oral historians have to be alert for factual inaccuracies. Sometimes faulty memories are the culprit, but in some cases people may be deliberately inflating (or minimizing) their role in events. According to Wilmot and Cándida Smith, that’s when a well-prepared oral historian will gently cite conflicting newspaper or other sources to see if the source changes his story. If not, the contradictions can be illuminating. “Often there’s a discrepancy between what historians can reconstruct and what people think happened. How people misremember and which bits they leave out are also part of the history,” says Wilmot.

Ideally, interviewers should be well-versed in the project’s subject. “You have to have a sense of what the concerns are in this area, so you can know how this person might provide insight into the overall topic,” explains Cándida Smith. “Good oral historians listen empathetically but critically — you can’t just accept what people tell you. Even though sometimes you’re dealing with tough times in people’s lives, you can’t softball the issues. That doesn’t do people or history any good.”

Call in the specialists
Cándida Smith reports that ROHO has recently added specialists in food and wine as well as biotechnology to the staff. More are still being recruited. It’s an unusual title for a liberal-arts environment. “The specialist position is used extensively in science departments as a non-teaching academic appointment, someone with the qualifications of a faculty member but who primarily does research,” he says. That does not mean they won’t be dealing with students — increasing student awareness of and participation in oral history seems to be Cándida Smith’s personal mission. In addition to the two oral history classes that Cándida Smith has taught (he has a joint appointment in the history department), ROHO offers several undergraduate research positions through the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP) and its summer counterpart, SRAP. The office also offers an Advanced Oral History Summer Institute, a six-day course designed to immerse graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, college faculty, and independent scholars in oral history’s methodology, theory, and practice.

“There shouldn’t be a divide between research and teaching. To give students the benefits of their four years here, you need to involve them in research activities,” Cándida Smith says. “The sciences have done this quite effectively; the humanities and social sciences, less so. We’re not going to solve the student-faculty ratio problem, but one of the ways we can help is to tap the talented staff. I have a staff of 40-some people who have a lot to give. By working with us, students learn how professionals formulate a research project and carry it out. They also learn that it’s a group effort, developing in conversation and context.”

And in addition to getting history majors out of the library, helping the ROHO office with projects lends a significance often missing in their work. “Once students know that the work they’re doing for an oral history is going to be available in the Bancroft, that changes the way they work,” says Cándida Smith. “It becomes not just for the grade or the professor, but for future generations.”