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Willa K. Baum.

When I first met Willa K. Baum, in the dusty, wainscoted seminar room in Berkeley's History Department (at the oral history seminar they occasionally allowed her) I felt like I'd walked into a play by Moliere. A character walks on stage and tells the assembled company that he's just discovered, "I've been speaking Prose all my life!"

For a few years, I had been doing oral history interviews for a biography of Pete Seeger, How Can I Keep From Singing; but I'd never heard of oral history. Out of that seminar came a life-long commitment and Oral History: An Interdisciplinary Anthology (Oral History Association (OHA)/American Association for State and Local History, 1984), edited with Willa Klug Baum. For years the association had tried to assemble such an anthology, by committee. Betty Key and Martha Ross had assembled a team of senior figures in the OHA, including Thomas Charlton, Sam Hand, William Moss, and Enid Douglass. But the work had foundered, and as I studied for my doctoral orals, I repeatedly asked Willa where I could find the key readings in the field. Her answer was to point a finger at the tattered set of clippings kept in a folder in ROHO's Library, never far from Willa's reach at the small desk in an office she shared equally with her colleagues.

I pointed out that these clippings were from obscure publications and no one--and probably no single library--had a set. Why not prepare an anthology, and in doing so shape the field by bringing together key works, I asked.

"Fine. You do that," she replied on a day when I had drifted up to the obscure, fourth-floor of the Bancroft Library where the Regional Oral History Office was housed in a series of small and rickety rooms.

Not knowing how seriously to take her suggestions, I hurriedly wrote up a proposal listing the articles she had given me so far. She went over the list, added a few, subtracted a few and handed it back.

"If you can do this, you may be doing oral history a favor." That was Willa's way, to speak straight but not long. For the next three years I worked with her to gather the permissions to reproduce these works--and many loyal OHA members gave their permission for the OHA-sponsored first edition of Oral History. We arranged the volume by sections: "The Gateway to Oral History," "Interpreting and Designing Oral History," "Oral History Applied," "Oral History and Related Disciplines," "Oral History and Schools," "Oral History and Libraries." At Willa's request, we dedicated the volume "To Two Path Breakers in Oral History, Allan Nevins, and Louis Starr" (the latter had died just before our work on the anthology began).

Throughout these years, and my finishing my dissertation, Willa was by turn maternal, constructively critical, and funny. At one point as we were rereading the essays, she said, "You know David, it seems to be our fate as oral historians to be told by everyone (outside of our circle) that just because somebody says something, that doesn't necessarily make it true. I probably have sat through twelve OHA luncheon speakers making this very point."

Willa and I often argued over whether oral history was a "field," "discipline," or "method." Willa took it to be the latter, and I the former. I pointed out that the existence of a body of literature on oral history constituted not just a method of gathering raw data for subsequent historical analysis, but a distinctive field of inquiry, which was history as constructed during interviews. (This was in the period when oral history was considered a process of gathering raw material for later scholars.)

In pursuit of my point into this first anthology, I inserted essays on the interactive, performance, and on the socio-linguistic nature of oral history interviewing. I wanted to challenge the notion of oral historians as miners and our interviewees as raw ore, waiting to be picked out and pulverized before their accounts would yield history. Willa often raised an eyebrow (her right, as I remember) when she would read these articles about language and folklore, and other interests of mine.

"What does this have to do with a set of facts, David?" she would ask. I would reply that history is jointly constructed in these interviews, that the interviewer as well as the narrator has a role and could not be made invisible. Like most students trying to teach the teacher, I did not understand that she already understood, but understood differently.

Willa's view of oral history as a method of gathering historical facts--not a field, but a method--continued into her later years. I remember sitting with her on a bus returning from an event at the 1993 International Conference on Oral History, in Siena/Lucca, Italy. She was reflecting happily on the gathering and its significance for the internationalization of oral history; but then she turned to me and said, "I hate subjectivism. That's not what I went into history to study."

The subjectivist movement in historical scholarship, which drew from field-work concepts such as reflexivity, was not to her liking; yet she always insisted that interviews need an "interview history," a recounting of factors and interaction during the interview itself, which could very well be considered reflexive analysis. This difference between Willa and myself on oral history comes from the generation-gap between us: Baum, trained in the 1950s; me, trained in the 1970s and '80s. When I went on to write the introduction to our anthology, I focused on three, and later four distinct generations of oral historians, progressing from oral historian as stenographer to real historians; to oral history used as tools for what would later be called empowerment; graduate students understanding oral history as oral historiography and as field-work, with the concomitant duties and reflections field-work requires.

I remember the night the anthology was finally done. I had begun teaching full-time but returned for Christmas break to Berkeley. We were writing up the headnotes describing each article and the short biographies of the authors. It was about 8 o'clock on New Year's Eve, and I had plans to go out that evening; and so perhaps I hurried our work along. We sat at typewriters (how quaint) with the essay texts and background authors had provided. When we had a bunch we would pass them to each other and start rewriting each other's copy. It went smoothly. Finally as the new year drew in, I pulled out the split of champagne I'd smuggled into the library and opened it right there, in ROHO's offices--just the two of us, and a book.

In the years after I left Berkeley and stopped visiting regularly, I would closet myself with Willa in an out-of-the-way set of chairs at the OHA annual meetings. It was she who urged me to go regularly; to become a life member; to work with other younger scholars to bring them along. I remember her blue eyes, twinkling as she'd pass these bits of advice, their color exactly matching a pair of round earrings she liked to wear. Many times I would come to her house in the Berkeley hills, always populated with an assortment of loud birds and gentle foreign students, whom she nurtured as she did her co-workers at ROHO. Our discussions continued; I would urge her to find a way to segue out of contract oral history, where the wealthy and powerful could through their associations and friends commission oral histories. She would point out that the only support Berkeley gave ROHO (in those days) were their few rooms and her salary; all other funds had to be raised outside. She operated ROHO in a Robin Hood-like fashion, expecting her contract work--and her network of loyal funders--to provide overage so that she could take on unsponsored projects, such as documenting the history of the Sierra Club, perhaps her favorite charitable organization.

Over the broad wooden table in her dining room, we discussed many things. If there was a new book on oral history, she wanted to make sure I read it and furnished an opinion; if there were needs within the OHA, such as its Publication Committee, she made sure I volunteered as chair. One didn't say no. The lure of her kitchen, with something always freshly baked or stewed, kept me and many other oral historians coming back for another helping of Willa Baum.

In the '90s, we decided to redo our anthology, leaving out the sections on libraries and schools in favor of the new, internationalized perspective of oral history and regional studies. At that time, she worried that oral history had gotten too sophisticated for its own good and had lost sight of the basic qualities which made it distinctive: its well-researched interviews; its extremely sophisticated interviewers, many of whom worked with her ROHO; its emphasis on providing an archive for later use. These were the things Willa Baum thought oral history did best. And when I would suggest that she update her widely used pamphlets on editing oral history and oral history for the local historical society, she would shrug and raise her hands and that twinkle would enter her eyes again: "Why? They're designed for people who haven't gone to graduate school. They're designed for people who do oral history, not spend all their time thinking about its meaning."

Whether this was a subtle put-down to my theoretical and disciplinary passions, or simply the sagacious advice of someone who had seen many a school of historical thinking arrive and depart, I never knew. I know she never did stop serving as a world-wide clearinghouse for oral history; for so many people had their first experience of oral history in the works of Willa Baum. Her passions for archiving oral history--"make sure it's mainstreamed into the catalogue as a whole!"--never flagged. Her essay on curating oral history in the anthology, "The Expanding Role of the Librarian in Oral History," has inspired many a librarian, I've been told. Her whole life was an inspiration for more than one generation of oral historians who join me in thanking her and missing her warm presence on the other end of the phone line or in one of the thousands of envelopes she filled with kind and thoughtful comments to strangers.

I lost touch of Willa in the last few years, but at another occasion her work and mine intersected. It was when she had finally agreed to retire from ROHO, and I was among those considered to take her place at Berkeley. Like anyone looking at continuing the work of his or her mentor, I was both ambitious and nervous at the prospect. I remember standing in front of the considerable staff of the Bancroft Library, and reminding them of Willa's role in running its oral history program for half a century "This is a woman who has molded the field (and here my eyes flicked towards Willa) of oral history for half a century She is the senior figure in American oral history and though someone may continue her job and her work, none will replace her."

In my last letter to Willa, when she was in the hospital, I wrote the following: "I continue onward with the oral history projects which you have inspired in me. I now hope to inspire them in others, particularly with the National Park Service Route 66 Oral History Office which I have set up to train citizen-historians in collecting their own oral histories along Route 66. At last count, more than two hundred interviews have been conducted, transcribed, and yes, deposited. You should take this as one more example of your graduate students carrying the flame forward to a new generation of interviewers. That day I wandered into your oral history seminar, and began learning oral history according to Baum, was a fateful one for me. I hope this gives you some satisfaction as perhaps passing the torch to a new generation of students will do for me. I only hope they remember to write."

David Dunaway received the first Ph.D. in American Studies at Berkeley. A professor at the University of New Mexico and a Fulbright scholar, his specialty is the presentation of literature and history on radio, television, and film.
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Author:Dunaway, David
Publication:The Oral History Review
Article Type:In memoriam
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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