An interview with Willa K. Baum: a career at the Regional Oral History Office.
Willa K. Baum: I guess I didn't know, and I didn't have any definite career goals. I was born in Chicago, and grew up in Southern California, a small town called Ramona. I went to school at Whittier College, which is a Quaker College in southern California. I started college during the War, so it was small at that time. Then it immediately expanded, doubled, tripled in 1945 when the fellas came back. I took history. I was aiming at being a lawyer, maybe.
TK: Did you have any personal inspirations?
WB: Movies. I think I wanted to be a great labor lawyer, Clarence Darrow or something like that. I never had the feeling that women can't do things. I think Whittier was a very good college. You got a view of all kinds of subjects and it was a good education.
Then I got a scholarship to Mills College up here in the Bay Area, which is a women's college. That worked out very well. Then I got a scholarship to come to Cal [University of California Berkeley], which looked terribly exciting. Cal students were standing around on the street corners and making political speeches and religious speeches. It was so exciting to come over from Mills, which is about an hour away by bus, and do my research here in this library.
TK: When you were at Mills, what was your research topic?
WB: It was American history. When I was at Whittier the professor that I worked for very closely, Dr. Paul S. Smith, was in Constitutional history. When I got to Mills, I did my Master's thesis on Constitutional history, but by the time I got here to Cal, I was definitely into California history. I was eager to become a historian and have some kind of impact by studying the use of water in California.
TK: Were there particular professors that influenced you?
WB: William Davis, who is now deceased, was my western history professor. Walton Bean was California history and I did a lot of work with him. Eventually he became our faculty advisor in oral history. John D. Hicks, I worked for him for probably seven years as his reader. I don't know if they influenced me historically, but they certainly did personally.
TK: How did you first get introduced to the whole idea of oral history?
WB: Well, you know, oral history didn't exist then. It was just a job. I was paying all my way and I had teaching assistantships and then I had readerships each of the different years.
TK: You had been a teacher for many years, where did that fit in?
WB: Oh, well, I became a night school teacher for English for the foreign born. Citizenship was what I wanted to teach because I thought, "I'm a Constitutionalist. I'm going to really teach these foreigners what America is all about." But they said, "Well, we don't have a job in that, but you could teach them English, couldn't you?" and I said, "I'll try." And I loved it.
So much of my graduate college career was supported by teaching night school and later I was teaching adult school in the day, too. I worked my way through college on that, as well as assistantships and readerships.
My second year at Cal, I had just gotten my teaching assistantship, $100 a month, and I got married. My husband was in a Ph.D. program and so was I, so we were both slaving away. Soon, we had one son and then we had two. Then my husband became very, very ill and his prognosis was almost hopeless. At that point I sort of lost my impetus to get a Ph.d. because no women were getting college teaching jobs. Well, one I knew got a job in Mississippi or somewhere far away, at $4000 a year. So I just thought, I can't get a teaching job that will support my family. By then I really wanted to be a teacher of American history, make people see how important things about America were. I loved to teach.
TK: So did you not finish the Ph.D. then?
WB: I didn't finish, no.
TK: What did you do instead?
WB: Oh, I didn't permanently drop out of the Ph.D. program then. I just kept on earning a living and doing things historical. By the time my husband graduated and it was my turn, we had five children and my oral history work had gotten so challenging and fun, I decided I wanted to keep on doing it. That was 1966 and oral history was taking off nationwide.
TK: How did you start working in oral history?
WB: Back to 1954. I was a grad student, a reader. I was a reader for professor Hicks until he retired. I was also teaching adult school at night. Then I started oral history for a few hours a week. It was just transcribing.
A fellow TA, Corrine Gilb was offered the part-time job to try and set up something like what Hubert Howe Bancroft had done long ago here in California, which was to interview pioneers. I'm trying to think if we ever knew about oral history at Columbia University at all and I don't remember anything about that, but I do remember meeting Allan Nevins. He was by that time retired from Columbia and he was a Fellow at Huntington Library and he often carne up to the Bancroft Library to do research. So Corrine and I met with him, with several faculty members who were interested in oral history.
TK: Whose idea was it to start this?
WB: Professor James D. Hart, who later became the director of the Bancroft Library but at that time was a professor of English, and another professor of English, George R. Stewart. Both of them had used Hubert Howe Bancroft's dictations, which were the interviews that had been done in the 1860s and 70s. Professors Hart and Stewart wondered why we weren't still doing this, catching live people about what they'd done. So they pushed it with the Academic Senate Library Committee.
The president of our university, Robert Gordon Sproul, became interested in it. I believe the reason he became interested in having an oral history program was that we were having a terrible battle here at Cal about a loyalty oath. The faculty and administration were split and President Sproul wanted to get the history of the university, and particularly this loyalty oath, documented. So he put up money to interview persons who had had a significant impact in California.
Corrine Gilb hired me to work with her because she was working on her Ph.D., too. She interviewed lawyers primarily because her dissertation was on the California State Bar, and I started out doing leaders for the blind, which was quite by chance.
TK: How did the blind study come up?
WB: Well, the Bancroft Library had the papers of Tom Mooney and Warren Billings. A lot of people were researching them. Richard Frost, who was doing heavy research on them brought up a woman from Los Angeles who had organized the defense for Tom Mooney to meet with us, Mary Gallagher. She brought papers and she explained a lot of papers for the Bancroft Library. Well, Mary Gallagher had been in the old IWW [Industrial Workers of the World]. I was assigned to interview her. She was a character. She was wonderful, and her husband had written a lot of the famous Wobbly songs.
Anyhow, Mary Gallagher was now an old lady and she had changed her direction and was working for the independence of the blind and she knew some leaders in that. She introduced them to me. She insisted that this was a terribly important movement, which was the idea of not having blind people just sit home and get a pension, but get a job, go out and work, be trained to do things they could do. That was also a movement for independence for the blind here on campus. We had Jacobus TenBrook here on campus and he was a leader of that. So I got to do the leaders of the blind and I did about three or four interviews on that. That was in the early `50s and I realize now that our biggest new project is the Disabled Persons Independence Movement, wheelchair people, which also arose in Berkeley. I don't think the physically disabled even equate their lives with the blind, but this blind movement had been going on long before.
TK: When you interviewed Mary Gallagher, was that the first interview you ever did?
TK: So what was that like? How did you prepare for it?
WB: I'm sure it was something that jumped on me without preparation, almost. We had some papers here, but I can't remember going through diem extensively I did know the fellow who brought her up, Dick Frost, and I worked closely with him. He told me what were good questions. Actually, with Mary Gallagher, you didn't have to ask any questions. She was such a delightful woman. Everyone should have the opportunity to start with somebody so pleasant and charming. I guess I have a tendency to fall in love with each interviewee. So many of them are so nice. Being someone's oral historian is a very mellow relationship.
I did do a lot of research on the blind. I think most history grad students tend to do more research for an oral history than they really need to. I believe in heavy research, but grad students are usually driven to find out every single thing before they put a word on paper, and you certainly can't afford to do that in oral history. You have to keep remembering that you do have to know the questions to ask, but you don't have to know the answers.
TK: You said before that there was no oral history, so what guided you in learning how to set up this program?
WB: Well, I have always thought that oral history is pretty much common sense. About a year into it, Corrine and I took a week's leave and went to her house and read every one of our interviews and analyzed every question as to which ones we thought got an answer and were a wise way to go and which weren't. We put together a little guide on the kind of questions to ask and what to do and not to do. It was sort of a self-analysis.
I didn't know of any other oral history except the Forest History Society, which was interviewing old loggers and foresters around the country. Their policy was to put the interviews in the manuscript library that was local, near the place of the interview. So the Bancroft Library had acquired a number of these old California logger interviews and we read those with great interest. We could probably say they weren't as good as ours. Our interviews were good. I look them over now and I say, "Gee, we were good," to start with, but they're just common sense.
TK: Could you give me a brief history of how ROHO grew from that to what it is now?
WB: Well, to start with we had money directly from the president's office. It was not very much. I'm sure that we didn't have the equivalent of one full-time employee. I remember my salary was $2.38 an hour and I probably worked ten hours a week at the most and Corrine probably likewise. We had enough money to keep ourselves and we might have had two transcribers. They were also students, part-time. We were all part-time, a little team.
We never had the concept of trying to get more money. We had a faculty committee that met occasionally. We would prepare ideas, present maybe twelve persons that we thought should be interviewed and all about those persons. Then they could choose six of them. Then we'd do six in a year or so. But it was hard to get the committee together, they didn't really care very much. Eventually Walton Bean, who was the professor of California history and who was at that point writing a history of the University of California, became very interested. He became defacto our faculty advisor, which just meant that we checked with him who we thought should be interviewed.
TK: Who was on the faculty committee?
WB: The Academic Senate had appointed a library committee to look at the library, and then that library committee appointed a little committee to look at us. So who they were was whoever was appointed or who was willing to take the position.
TK: How did you choose who you were going to propose to interview?
WB: Our original assignment was to interview persons who had made a significant contribution to the history of California and the West. So it always was "significant contribution." That followed exactly what Allan Nevins was doing in Columbia.
All right, so who is a famous person? First of all, we always have to be able to do the interview. For example you couldn't assign us a physicist. Now we can interview a physicist, but in those days Corrine and I couldn't interview him. I mean if we'd had to spend half a year researching, there would not be much production. Since the University of California was a major subject for us, and for Walton Bean, a number of our interviews were University of California people. We pretty much did the persons who were recommended, that we were able to do. As we got more interviewers, we could do more fields.
Corrine left in not too long a time, three years, and I became head of the project. 1958.
TK: What kinds of people do you interview more recently?
WB: We've always been strong on politics, California politics. We've done three big projects on the governors, which means the governor and all of his aides and as many of his enemies as we could interview. As I say, always the history of the University of California. We've always done a lot of lawyers and that's because they're usually into some issue. Like one of the lawyers we did recently had led the campaign for the California Medical Association against state paid medical care back when Earl Warren was governor and he was trying to put in a state health system. Recently we've done a number of interviews on health maintenance organizations, HMOs. It's become one of our specialties. We've done the founders of Kaiser Permanente and we're doing a southern California HMO called FBP.
TK: What would you consider some of the most successful things about this program?
WB: Well, I think the best thing we do is good oral histories. I think they really are excellent research, excellent questions, excellent working with the interviewee so that if something is unclear we point it out to them and have them look at it carefully. We try not to have inaccuracies come through. That's why we've always had our interviewers do the editing because we figure they know the field, and they were there and know what the interviewee said. Now we don't know if we can keep following that system because the interviewers are getting so overloaded with die expansion of the interviewing they have to do. We might go to the system that some programs have where they have editors who are separate from interviewers. I've always felt that's unreasonable. It would only work if your editors didn't do anything but punctuation. They can't catch errors unless they know the field. There may be erroneous statements in the transcript. I would hope that the interviewer had a chance to read that over very carefully and say, "This doesn't quite make sense. I'll call this page to Mr. So and So's attention and ask him to read it carefully." I think we've been very good on working to try and get an accurate statement. Now, that's because our interviewees are all important. We would be embarrassed and they would be embarrassed if people grab up their oral history and say, "Wow, you got all this wrong."
Editor's note: This interview was conducted and edited by Tracy E. K'Meyer of the University of Louisville, whose article on the Koinonia Community is published in this issue. This interview was transcribed by Martha McCormick of TAPESCRIBE.
TK: What do you think might be some problems that you've had here that you'd like to see changed?
WB: Well, we wish we didn't have to spend so much effort on fund-raising. We wish that we could select our projects by what we or faculty think is important, without having to worry about the money all the time. Some things are almost unfundable and it doesn't mean they're not important. So what we would really like to do would be to have enough funding from the university that we could work with faculty to set their students on the track of interviewing on subjects that the faculty would wish to guide.
TK: What impact do you think your interviews have had on historiography of the West or California?
WB: At this point I don't think you could write anything about environmental history in the West, without referring to our oral histories and the papers that have come into the Bancroft Library as a result of the oral histories or hand-in-hand with the oral histories. I don't think you could write about California water without using our oral histories. I mean, there's so much in the oral histories that if a historian did not use them, people would say, "Why didn't you check."
You couldn't write about California state politics. We have probably two or three hundred oral histories with leading persons in the political scene. And some of our oral histories have been used intensively, like we did Dorothea Lange, the photographer. There isn't a month passes that I don't get a request or two from somebody who wants permission to publish from that oral history. We've got Ansel Adams. Those are oral histories that weren't done as a series, but they're just a key person. We were lucky to get them.
We've got a lot on architecture and UCLA does a lot of architecture in southern California. Architecture is a bigger and bigger subject. Now, I can't say that that affects historiography. I don't know if it gives you a different way of viewing history.
TK: Are you involved in any way in reaching out into the public with oral history?
WB: We haven't been and that's because we don't have any time. A lot of our staff have worked on professional things for oral history -- papers, workshops -- but they've always had to do it on their own time. The job doesn't pay you to do anything but the project you re assigned to. One of our staff members is the reporter for middle California for NOHA, which is the Northwest Oral History Association. Another is the reporter for Southwest Oral History Association. I was on the first OHA Council in 1967. My colleague. Amelia Fry-Chita served as secretary for the OHA for a long time. She and I spent a lot of time on OHA in the early days. If we were going to talk about OHA. we had to go and check out on the time clock- and spend an hour or two working on OHA things. Then we'd come check in again and et back to ROHO work. So that's why ROHO has never been as involved as some of the other offices who spend a lot more time on OHA. I think it's because they have someone with a salary. We would really like to have a salaried person who could assist our own faculty and people outside.
Now the big research push is to document all the different ethnic groups that are in California and I'm sure that we could get oral history programs going in every one of those ethnic groups if we could provide support of some kind, just advice and a library to put them in.
TK: Let's shift away from ROHO and look at some of your publications. What do you think is the most significant publication in terms of your career?
WB: I think the one that had the most effect was the very first one I did. which was called Oral History for the Local Historical Society. I wrote it because I was beginning to get requests from local history associations to come and give a talk on how to set up an oral history program. Then. pretty soon I had to do another talk. Then the Conference of California Historical Societies, which is an over-arching group for all the little historical societies, decided to have a publication program. They asked me to write something on oral history that could go out to all of their members. So I put it together for them.
I think it's been quite successful. I still meet people who say they use my booklet and they've set up a great oral history program. It's very simple. It's something that anybody could come up with.
TK: Were you expecting very much of a reaction to it?
WB: No, I didn't expect anything. I was just responding to a little request from the Conference of California Historical Societies. It's still in print. Then later, the AASLH, the American Association for State and Local History asked me "what do you do after you have the tapes?" So I wrote Transcribing and Editing, based on how we did it here at ROHO.
TK: I've heard lots of debates about whether to leave things in tape or to transcribe. What would you say if someone asked the question, "Why not just leave things in tape form?"
WB: It's an easy answer. Nobody would use them. You can argue all you want about how important the sound is, but nobody's going to sit and listen to them except maybe a television documentarian. Even they won't. They want the text and then when they find some text that they like. they will listen to the tape to see if it's useable. I do think it's crucial to keep the tape, and our tapes are used for a lot of documentary work.
One thing that ROHO never did that some projects did, they transcribed and removed the questions. Right in the very beginning we decided that that was false, that what the person said had something to do with what you had asked them and so we never removed the questions. We did in our early days do a little more editing than we do now and the editing was primarily in trying to make a neat outline where people didn't digress here and there. We'd move the digression over to where it worked properly in the time frame or subject frame. We finally decided, one, we couldn't afford it because it takes a lot of time to do that, and two, it didn't tell you why they thought of that digression at that point, and three, it didn't follow the tape. Because we do have the tapes and we have tape guides, so that as you read the transcript, you can go to wherever the piece of tape is. If you keep moving things around in your transcript and you're jumping all around the tapes, it will drive you crazy. Anyway, we couldn't afford substantial editing. We didn't even think it was necessary. I have come to like the conversational tone. the way people digress here and there.
TK: Did you ever video tape?
WB: No. For money reasons. If we didn't have a money reason, I'm sure we would videotape everyone for one session. But we've never had the equipment. We do have a video studio at Cal, but we have to pay to use it and it's a substantial cost. It also turns out to take a substantial time to set it up, by the time you get the person to come. We tried this early on. We did one video back in 1966. We were doing a lot of forest history of different kinds with logging people, lumber companies, and forest rangers. So we interviewed a lobbyist for the lumber companies and he was so colorful and so candid. Oh, you could get the whole idea of how government works from the things he said. So we set up a session with our video studio. We asked him questions gleaned from his long oral history and he answered. It was a marvelous little half an hour show. We took it to the very first meeting of the Oral History Association, which was at Lake Arrowhead in Los Angeles in 1966, and showed it in one of the evening programs. We made a few more, but golly, those were a real effort to do. When people say that you can just do it, it won't cost too much, I think they're not counting the time.
TK: The publication that I wanted to ask about is the anthology with David Dunaway. Could you tell me how that happened?
WB: It must have been about the end of the 70s. For two years I taught oral history here in the History Department. It was an interdisciplinary seminar and naturally I had to read all the literature, and then assign it to students. I had my reading list but it was hard to find copies of everything. The Oral History Association at about the same time or maybe even earlier, had begun to think about doing an anthology and they kept trying to put one together by committee. Martha Ross worked on it, Betty Key, Charlie Morrissey, Louis Starr. They couldn't get it together because it took a lot of work, and a lot of agreement.
David Dunaway, who had been in my first oral history seminar as a grad student, was by then teaching oral history at the University of New Mexico. He likewise needed to have readings for his students. He was trying to find out from me what I had used and where could we get copies of these things. He said, "Why don't we just put something together," and so we asked OHA did they mind. Well, nobody was working on it by then. David and I got permission from the OHA and used their original list that their committees had come up with, along with the two reading lists that he and I had.
I had no idea it would be so much work. David came up here to Berkeley. Every day we went to an empty house, spread out all our readings on the floor, and worked on it. We argued a lot. No phones, no nothing for a week or so. And we picked the ones that we thought were key. There were far more than we could use. Then there was a lot of work to get permission from both the author and the publisher. Often the articles had been published in little magazines which had ceased to exist. There were a couple of key people we had to leave out. Ron Grele wasn't in the first edition because he was about to publish a book himself and his publisher had asked him not to permit anyone to publish anything of his.
TK: What kind of criteria did you use to choose?
WB: We took it from a teaching point of view. What ought somebody who was going to teach and to direct oral history know? That's how we had selected them for our classes. The publisher wanted it to be interdisciplinary, to include folklore and librarianship and anthropology. So we included several articles that would not have been in the usual oral history readings. The AASLH was willing to publish it, but they needed to have a market that was a little bigger than just oral history, which is very small. Certainly the articles had to be well written. And we did decide that no person would have two articles in. There were some people who had written at least two key things, so we had to choose which one we would use.
TK: What was the response to the book when it came out?
WB: Well, it wasn't a best seller, but I think it was very useful and became a major tool in teaching oral history. I think the selections were good -- if you used it in your class, how did it work?
TK: I used it in my class when I taught in 1992 and the students thought it sounded very defensive -- a lot of people justifying oral history -- and they didn't like that. I'm wondering, do you feel that that's an accurate statement or why do you think they felt that?
WB: I think at the time -- the 1970s is when most of the pieces were written -- people were trying to show that oral history was worth doing because historiography still didn't include the spoken word.
TK: Do you think it would ever come out in a new edition?
WB: It's in a second edition now, and the second edition has changes. I'm not sure if I approve of all the changes because some of them are updated with new post-modernism ideas, which I don't really like and David said must be in there. We argued a lot about it and there they are. And that meant that some previous articles had to be left out, which I was very sorry to see. I do feel that there has to be a continuing effort to put out another anthology in maybe ten years. One of the things that's changed is a number of articles showing what's gone on in oral history in Latin America, Europe, England, France to show the global impact of this.
TK: I thought I'd move into some broader questions looking back at your career as a whole. Have there been any particular individuals that have influenced you over this time?
WB: Yes. I don't know if they influenced me, but I certainly admired Louis Starr and Elizabeth Mason, and Jim Mink. Jim Mink was really our founder. He's the one that called the first gathering of oral historians in 1966. He was head of oral history down at UCLA at that time, a real forward-looking, enthusiastic kind of fellow.
Louis Starr, of course, was a dynamo. He was head of the Columbia program. Elizabeth Mason was his assistant. Louis Starr started with Allan Nevins. Louis was a historian of journalism. Elizabeth Mason was his manager and she was terrific. The two of them were a wonderful team. They incorporated the Oral History Association and it worked out of Box 20, which was the Columbia University program's mailing box, for a long time before we started shifting the OHA's address around every few years. I always thought we ought to have kept Box 20.
Charlie Morrisey. I met him on the very first gathering, up at Lake Arrowhead. He was head of the John F. Kennedy Oral History Program. They had to set up their oral history program instantaneously after the JFK assassination. He was telling about some of the dangers of recording oral history in politically volatile times. Charlie said he sometimes stayed in the office almost all night so none of his superiors would come in and get into the tapes before they were opened. I just think Charlie is one of the great persons in our field and a heavy thinker, all interlaced with lots of jokes.
Who else do I think? There are so many people. Forrest Pogue, who just died. the biographer of General George Marshall. Forrest Pogue was a grandfatherly figure and so practical and so supportive, and also with so much knowledge. I don't know if he influenced me, he probably just encouraged me that what we were doing was right.
TK: I wanted to ask you about your first couple of meetings. You attended the first one, the one at Lake Arrowhead. Could you tell me a little bit about it?
WB: Well, Lake Arrowhead was pretty exciting. We were about 75 people. Allan Nevins spoke to us. He was such a practical man, and that's why we included his statement in the anthology.
TK: Who attended?
WB: Oral history program directors like myself. And some top historians, who had used oral history interviews in their writing. Oral historians from libraries, mostly from Columbia University. Not many historical society people; more likely people from universities. The invitation list was from a list Columbia had put together of people who had written them for information about their program.
TK: So Allan Nevins spoke. Charlie Morrissey spoke. Do you remember any other things that particularly stand out?
WB: We did argue about what is oral history and we're still arguing about it. I don't think all interviews that are tape recorded need to be called oral history and at that point we were arguing about that. Most of the people there were in what I call "archival oral history." That is, we were doing oral history for preservation and for the use of others and it wasn't for your own research. Your own research was called interviewing for your historical research, not oral history. In fact, in ROHO it wasn't allowed to be for your own research because you were supposed to do your own research on your own time. We also didn't want it to be for your own research because we thought then interviewers narrow in on just what they want to know and they don't want to waste their time on all of this other stuff.
Well, I think that's still a battle that's going on, is it oral history if you just ask questions for your own research? Of course, if you put the tapes in the library it is useful to other people. But did you only ask the three questions that you needed to know to fill out the research? I can remember Lawrence Goodwyn of Duke University, when he described his oral history program; his students studied intensely on some very narrow thing like voting in a little county, and then when there were four or five things they couldn't find out from papers, they would go in and ask people that. I thought, "That's terrible, because if you go in and talk to these people, why don't you find out about their lives and other things that would be useful to another person, instead of only your little piddling thing about how did voting go?" All of which might make a very significant contribution, but was not archival oral history. It was research. It was historical research.
TK: I think you're right, that debate still goes on between archivists and academic historians.
WB: That's why I think that our program at Berkeley has been very fortunate that we are in the library, not related to the History Department. I mean, we had history professors on our faculty committee, but we didn't have anybody telling us we must study only certain things in a narrow way. We had advisors from engineering and architecture and English who were quite interested in other things, and that gave us a possibility to be a broad program.
TK: You talked about that first meeting. Where did it go after that?
WB: Then we incorporated in New York and so the second meeting was the first meeting when we were the Oral History Association, Inc. Louis Staff and Elizabeth Mason put it on at Arden House, and that was quite splendid. We all gathered on buses and went up there. The next year we met in Washington DC, the Airlie House, hosted by the George Marshall Library. It was also an elegant private place where they held conferences. I can remember it was really exciting because there were so few of us, and we were all so dedicated. It was a very substantial mix. The first two or three sessions had a lot of medical people attending, maybe a third, but I don't think there are any medical people in our association now. There were primarily professors of history and some library people, but not so many. I think it was a bigger deal then. It's more common now to send the second in command. The professor who was in charge of the faculty oversight committee doesn't go now, but in those days he did.
TK: What do you think have been important events in the development of oral history as a field?
WB: In the 1970s we had a big flurry. It was the bicentennial so there were oral history projects about local communities and there seemed to be funding for that. There were people who wanted to document the ordinary history of their town. That wasn't all oral history, of course, but it was a substantial component. By the 1980s I think theoretical historians or people who were social activists were going into oral history and the people who just wanted to document their town were turned off and dropped out of the association.
TK: Why do you think that is?
WB: I think some of the old-timers have dropped out because they don't think of themselves as activists pushing a new feminism or a new anything. What they think of themselves doing is trying to document what happened in their part of the world or whatever their interest is. Documenting women journalists or whatever thing they're documenting. But they don't have a mission, except to document it and that isn't enough anymore. Well, you've been to the meetings -- although I don't remember seeing you there.
TK: I've been to every one since Birmingham. I'm usually with old friends catching up.
WB: That's a difference you point out. When we first started going, you didn't have any friends from anywhere. We usually had at least two people going from our office. We had an absolute rule: You could not room with anybody from your office. You could not sit with them at the table for dinner. You were supposed to be out there meeting new people and you didn't just hang around with your old friends. I think that we mixed around more. The Association would help everyone find a roommate. Another thing was that you didn't bring your spouse. Bringing spouses always means that people are pulling off to go to restaurants with their spouse or they have to pay a certain amount of attention to their spouse, or two couples are spending a lot of time together. So you don't really participate to the degree that we used to.
TK: It sounds like the way the international conference in New York was because no one knew anybody and it was wonderful for the same reason. You named two big changes -- the increase in oral history in the 70s and then in the 80s the switch to, maybe getting more academic?
WB: No. Getting more -- I don't know what to call it. Mission oriented.
WB: Yes, but I don't know what kind of political. Feminist, multicultural. It was that you weren't just documenting something, but you had a mission to empower people to do something with it.
TK: One of the questions I was going to ask you was about these - I couldn't come up with a good word either, so I called them theoretical developments, like the feminist approach to oral history or multiculturalism, which you named. Things like looking at memory itself or looking at the interview as a communication event. Has that affected the way you all work here?
WB: No. We're very hostile to that point of view.
TK: Why is that?
WB: Well, because when we interview somebody we're trying to get that person to give the best account that they can -- recognizing that it's from behind their own eyes -- of what happened. We're going to try to help them express their point of view. We realize that whoever the interviewer is -- same or different age, sex, color -- is going to make quite a bit of difference, but that's not what we're studying. We're not psychologists. We're not communication experts or anything like that and we don't want to study that. All the trouble of trying to raise money for history, you don't need to spend it seeing how people talk to each other. It's another subject and it's a valid subject, but not ours.
TK: It seems to me that what you're saying is that documenting the history as accurately as possible, as factually as possible, is what you got the money for. That's the primary purpose. but if somebody wanted to come into your archives and look at all your interviews and do all these other kinds of analysis, well that's fine.
WB: Oh, sure, and if we thought they were coming in to use it for social science analysis, we would collect as much information as we could about whatever they were looking into. For example, I've always thought our oral histories would be wonderful for studying family relationships, how you raise children, what kind of children turn out well or don't, and are we asking enough questions that a psychologist could use? From the very beginning we've tried to ask questions about aging that somebody who's studying the process of aging could also use our oral histories. But we're not geriatrics researchers.
TK: You've been doing this for a long time now. Do you think the way you do an interview has changed over time?
WB: I don't do any interviews anymore, so, I don't know. I'm kind of curious as to how I would do interviews now.
TK: When did you stop doing them yourself?
WB: Maybe ten years ago. That's just because the administration part got too heavy. Of course, the real fun is doing the interviews, the interviewing and the getting to know a field really well and the people in that field is the real joy of it. Our interviewers concentrate on a field, like California politics or the wine industry, or horticulture, or whatever.
TK: When did you begin to consider yourself an oral historian? Do you still consider yourself an oral historian?
WB: Well, I can't consider myself a historian, so I'll have to be an oral historian. Probably when I started to work full time here, which was about 1966. So probably for the first ten years while I was in the oral history office I still thought I'd be something else. Then at that point I started to work full time here and that's really when the office took off. Before that we kind of limped along and did small things, but we weren't really out there trying to raise money and do whole series and stuff like that. It's when you throw your whole attention into one thing that things happen.
TK: Can you think of any other topics that I haven't asked about that you think are interesting or important to cover?
WB: How are collections used? The ROHO collections? Well, they're heavily used in the Bancroft Library, but Bancroft does not keep count of use. UCLA does keep a count and they found their oral histories were the second most heavily used of all the types of materials they have. UCLA has all our oral histories and we have all theirs.
We do have documentary people quite often calling us and they want to know about a subject. They are always in a hurry. They're going to put out a television program in two weeks and they need you to airmail them the tapes and the transcripts and they'll probably use only a little word or so. Sometimes they have a longer view and they will come and read the transcripts, select what they want, and if the persons are still alive, then they will go and interview them with their cameras and their super mikes. A number of the people we've interviewed have been subjects of documentaries and they've used our transcripts to get prepared to make the documentaries.
And plays. A lot of plays, usually one man or one woman monologues based on a historical personage. They use the transcripts and they particularly want the tapes. The very first oral history that was done in the Bancroft Library of this century's reincarnation, 1953, was with Alice B. Toklas, because we have some Gertrude Stein papers. A grad student went over to Paris, which he was going to do anyway. He interviewed Alice B. Toklas and he made a transcript. Maybe five years ago an actress was creating a one-woman show in New York on Alice B. Toklas and she had her letters, she had the transcript, she had everything. But she had no idea what Alice B. Toklas sounded like and lo and behold we could come up with tapes. I can think of six plays based on oral histories off the top of my head. It was something we had never imagined would have happened.
Okay, what else has it been used for? Well, I can show you all the shelves of books that have used greater or lesser amounts of the oral histories. So they are used in, as we thought originally, historical monographs, but also in lots of books that are more laymen oriented. The public likes oral histories.
We also made some of ours into easy readers for teaching adults who can't read. They were some we did in the town of Richmond up here and the language is exactly what the people said, with big type. They fixed them up very nicely. Now they use them to tutor reading in the libraries around here. We never would have thought of that. The reason we did it was because we couldn't get money to finish the project. Somehow we latched onto the idea of this educational program to teach literacy. It's the kind of initiative that's required when you have to raise funds. That's what Allan Nevins said, they never would have done such exciting things if they had had enough money.
TK: I want to end by asking questions about the field itself. From the vantage point of where you are now, what are some of the significant problems that oral historians need to address in order for the field to improve?
WB: I'm just thinking of one, I'm just beginning to worry about and this is public history and the number of people who are public historians or oral historians who work for a company or something and do an oral history project for them, which is never deposited in a repository. I still don't consider it oral history until it is available for research and until somebody can check it. I see more and more history that's being written for whoever pays for it and conducted for whoever pays for it. I know the public historians worry about that a great deal and try to be professional and not sell their souls, but I do know that a lot of oral history is being done and put into company coffers, where it eventually is thrown out by the next occupant. It's not available to the other world.
I don't know what can be done about that. People have always been writing history for companies or whatever. I think the only thing is it detracts, it diverts the oral history from becoming a public oral history. I can see why a company doesn't want to have their oral history available to their competitors for a certain amount of time. Then, of course, they all think that some day it will be carefully watched over and made available under the right circumstances, but that's probably not going to happen because the archivist who is watching over it and the CEO who thinks he's objective is going to be gone, and another company is going to buy them out and who knows what's going to happen to all that effort. So I'm sorry that money, the effort that is going into those kind of histories is not going into some way to preserve them for public use.
I still think that people don't know how to handle their oral histories in the library. Of course, we don't know what to do with our tapes yet. We're still struggling with do we have to digitize them. If so, how do we do that? So how to preserve the materials is a problem and it's going to be worse with so many things that are video. I don't think that people use them as much as they're valuable.
TK: Well, let's look at the flip side of this instead of talking about problems and let's see what are some of the good things about oral history right now. What are some of the good things about the state of oral history right now?
WB: People know what it is. It certainly has become popular as a literature genre. It often is not archival oral history, it's oral history that somebody did a sweep, which is good. So I think that the world knows what oral history is and they enjoy reading it. I think the public is more interested. They like to read it. They like to know it's there. They like to know that maybe somebody in their family might have an oral history in some library.
TK: On that positive note, let's conclude. Thanks.
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|Author:||K'Meyer, Tracy E.|
|Publication:||The Oral History Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1997|
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