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Blog: Notes from the classroom

Post written Miriam Laytner, Oral History Intern, Apollo Theater Oral History Project

The Apollo Theater Oral History Project at Community School 154, The Harriet Tubman Learning Center in New York City is almost complete for 2013-14. The interviews have been completed, the stories gathered and the group poem and plays performed.  Though the calendar says it’s spring, the weather outside is more reminiscent of autumn, when I first started as an Oral History Intern at the Apollo Theater.

As I sift through the folders of papers handed to me by the students and teachers at C.S. 154, a dog-eared page sticks out. I pull it out and realize it is part of a transcript from one of the oral history interviews conducted by this year’s 5th grade class. In this particular segment, the students are having trouble understanding that children in the 1940s and 1950s may have had yogurt, but they ate with a spoon. There was no such thing as Go-Gurt—the portable, disposable tube of yogurt favored by today’s nine- and ten-year olds. When I first transcribed the interviews, this conversation—which spans an entire page—first struck me as a waste of time. I was embarrassed that the students did not stick to the list of questions the teachers and I had carefully helped them cultivate over the previous weeks. But as the conversation progressed onto the next page, it blossomed into something more. The conversation turned to other differences between the children’s lives and the interviewees’ own childhoods. Students realized that the interviewees lived before there were refrigerators, color televisions or a 24-hour news cycle. As silly as it sounds, Go-Gurt became a springboard into a productive conversation on the historical changes witnessed by the interviewees during their lifetimes.

Oral history interviews, when conducted by a trained interviewer, can be valuable documents. During this project, I learned how oral histories gathered by young people are also valuable teaching tools. Students must learn a variety of skills in order to conduct an interview. They must learn how to be a good listener, how to ask open-ended questions, how to take notes, and how to conduct research in order to prepare for an interview. They also learned elements of theater production and public speaking. The structure of the oral history interview allows students to capture and internalize history in a way that makes sense to them as children. It is one thing to read a textbook that tells students that life was different in the 1950s, but it is quite another for them to come to the same conclusion on their own through conversations with an elderly member of the community.  A webpage can list technological advances from 1950 to 2014, but the nuanced impacts these changes had on the everyday lives of, for example, children living in Harlem, can really be felt when children compare their experiences to the experiences of their elders.

As much as I learned from my internship at the Apollo, I hope that the real beneficiaries of my work this year are the students at C.S. 154. They had an amazing opportunity to conduct interviews and translate those interviews to the stage—a process of internalizing and representing history that is valuable for strengthening community bonds and relationships to the past. I hope that the memories stay with them for years to come.

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Oral History Association elected to American Council of Learned Societies

The Oral History Association, the national professional organization based at Georgia State University, has been selected as the latest member of the prestigious American Council for Learned Societies.  The selection was made on May 9, 2014, at the ACLS annual meeting.

Founded in 1919, the 72-member ACLS is the preeminent representative of American scholarship in the humanities and related social sciences.  The ACLS advances scholarship through an extensive fellowship program and by strengthening relationships among its member societies.  It also sponsors conferences and other forms of scholarly communication, and promotes innovation in humanities scholarship.

“We are delighted to be selected to the ACLS,” stated OHA Executive Director Cliff Kuhn.  “The selection represents a validation of oral history as a method and practice, and an opportunity to interact with our colleagues in a variety of fields and disciplines.  ACLS membership clearly strengthens the OHA and advances its mission.

“Many scholars are interested in oral history,” Kuhn continued, “yet have little training themselves in oral history methods, ethics and interpretive issues.  The OHA can help elevate oral history practice for these individuals and their associations.  The OHA can also foster appreciation of public humanities work in diverse formats and media.”

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Blog: European Social Science History Conference

Post by Leslie McCartney, International Committee Web Liaison

I attended the European Social Science History Conference (10th Edition) held in the beautiful city of Vienna in Austria from April 23-26, 2014.  The ESSHC conference is organized by the International Institute of Social History, an institute of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.  The aim of the ESSHC is to bring together scholars who explain historical phenomena using the methods of social sciences.  The conference is composed of small group exchanges rather than formal plenary sessions.  The conference had over 2,000 attendees and sessions revolved around 27 networks (in alphabetical order:  Africa; Antiquity; Asia; Criminal Justice; Culture; Economics; Education and Childhood; Elites; Ethnicity and Migration; Family and Demography; Health and Environment; Labour; Latin America; Material and Consumer Culture; Middle Ages; Oral History; Politics, Citizenship and Nations; Religion; Rural; Sexuality; Social Inequality; Spatial and Digital History; Technology; Theory; Urban; Women and Gender; and World History).

The rigor, breadth and depth of the over 50 papers presented in the Oral History Network was certainly impressive and thought provoking.  Oral History Network organizers Timothy Asplant (Liverpool John Moores University), Graham Smith Holloway, University of London) and Andrea Stutz (University of Graz) excellent selection of papers and organization was clearly evident.  Discussion at the network meeting included revisiting the Oral History Network’s purpose which was originally Oral History and Life Stories.   Over the years the life stories component has waned and it was agreed that it should be included again to speak to a larger audience.

In several sessions discussions ensued about the ethics and issues that arise from making oral history interviews available on the Internet.  The Belfast Project/Boston College case was another topic that was raised and in light of today’s news about the arrest of Gerry Adams as a result of information revealed in the Belfast Project interviews, it proves that this case raises many ethical considerations for oral historians.

The conference is held every two years and it was announced in the general meeting held on Thursday, April 24 that the next ESSHC will be held in Valencia, Spain in 2016.  I would encourage anyone engaged in oral history research to present a paper and attend the next conference.

For more information about the ESSHC, please visit:  The program of the conference can be downloaded in a pdf document at:


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Oral History Association response to developments in Boston College case

The recent arrest of Gerry Adams has been linked to the Belfast Project of Boston College, where oral history interviews conducted with the promise of confidentiality were subpoenaed and eventually released. The case raises in high relief a number of important ethical, legal and procedural issues pertaining to oral history. It also offers an opportunity to foster dialogue and sensitivity around these issues, and to encourage best practices in the future. It is in this spirit that the Oral History Association, the national professional organization in the field, issues this statement.

The concern has been raised that the Belfast Project developments will have a chilling effect on academic freedom and research. This need not be the case. As has been demonstrated in numerous settings, it is certainly possible to successfully work with oral history narrators to discuss often highly sensitive subjects. In addition, without going into all of the specifics of the matter, the Boston College situation is somewhat anomalous.

The case offers a reminder of the importance of adhering to best practices, from the inception of an oral history project through its implementation and usage. Practitioners should take seriously the principle of informed consent, actively engaging in advance with potential narrators about subjects to be addressed in the interview, restriction options, and issues of future use. Legal counsel should be consulted at the outset about any possible issues involving restriction and confidentiality. Everyone involved — including upper administration, counsel, interviewers, and archives staff – needs to have the same understanding about procedures, and there needs to be clear written documentation of the process. It is imperative that people do not make promises that they can’t or won’t keep. Be cautious about publicizing potentially explosive interviews which have restrictions.

The Oral History Association has developed its own “Principles and Best Practices” to provide guidance to practitioners (, and works in numerous ways to foster high standards in the conduct, curation, dissemination, and interpretation of oral history interviews.

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Featured Member Institution: The American West Center

Founded in 1964, the American West Center is the oldest regional studies center of its type. Oral history has been at the core of the Center’s work from the beginning. The University of Utah was one of only six institutions to receive a grant from the tobacco heiress Doris Duke to record the oral histories of Native peoples. Over a five-year period beginning in 1966, AWC staff conducted interviews in six western states. Ultimately the Doris Duke Indian Oral History collection totaled 1,458 interviews and as of today the AWC has conducted 2,000 total interviews with Native peoples. The center has also recorded the experiences of other ethnic groups beginning with Japanese Americans and Utah’s Latino/a citizens. In 1999, the AWC launched a major Veterans oral history initiative that now includes interviews with veterans of World War II, Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In July 2014 the Center will launch a new Veterans Vietnam-specific collection. Other oral history programs included the University of Utah history project, Utah Outdoor Recreation Oral Histories, Pacific Worlds, Utah Environmentalism, Polio survivors, and the Center’s newest project, Saline Stories: An Oral History of Great Salt Lake. All told, the American West Center has recorded, processed, and preserved over 7,000 oral history interviews over the past half century.

Visit their website: