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Oral historians meet in India

Indian traditional puppeteers, out from behind a screen, performed for people attending the International Oral History Association Conference in India. Photo credit:  Don Ritchie

By Donald A. Ritchie and Mark Cave

Those who attended the biennial meeting of the International Oral History Association in Bangalore, June 27-July 1, 2016, brought back memories of the fragrant flowers, colorful saris and honking car horns that are so prevalent in India.  Oral historians from 32 nations gathered at the Sristi Institute of Art, Design and Technology to consider the latest developments in oral history, particularly highlighting work underway in Asia and the South Pacific, achieving the intent of moving the meetings to different regions of the world.

Under the theme of “Speaking, Listening, Interpreting,” the conference featured plenaries on putting oral histories online, dealing with disasters and trauma and recording postcolonial history.  Participants were also treated to a spirited performance of traditional puppetry, narrating tales from Indian epics–the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Two OHA members were elected to leadership positions: Martha Norkunas was elected as North American representative on the council and Mark Cave as president.  Outgoing President Indira Chowdhury will be heading up an effort to create an International Directory of Oral Historians.  Membership in IOHA is necessary for inclusion in this online resource, so please renew your membership soon.

The 2018 conference will be held June 18-21 in Jyväskylä, Finland, in the heart of the Finnish Lake District.  2018 marks the centennial of the end of the Finnish Civil War and the end of the First World War, so one of the sub themes under the main conference theme of Memory and Narration will be War and Remembrance.  For more information about the conference go to

Oklahoma centenarians tell their stories

Herman J. Harper, farmer and Navy veteran, was one of the Oklahoma centenarians interviewed for an Oklahoma State University oral history project. Photo credit:  Oklahoma State University

By Tanya Finchum
Oklahoma State University

Alas for those that never sing, but die with all their music in them. (Oliver Wendell Holmes)

The Oklahoma 100 Year Life oral history project, a collaboration with a gerontology faculty member in the College of Human Sciences, took form in the spring of 2013 and concluded in February 2016. An aim of the project was to conduct interviews with Oklahoma’s centenarians to explore lived history “back when” as well as how their journeys affect life today. Over the course of three years, 111 Oklahomans over the age of 100 were interviewed, 68 females and 43 males.

The project had two phases. In the first phrase the faculty member would visit with the centenarian, conduct a series of exercises to evaluate cognitive status and validate age. Oral history interviews were then arranged with those who passed the cognitive and age benchmarks.

An abbreviated life history was recorded along with their memories of living through historical times such as attending rural one-room schoolhouses, traveling by horse and wagon, managing without running water, and living through the Great Depression, just to name a few. Early day farming practices were also discussed along with inventions that seemed to make life a little easier.

One interviewee remarked, “We used horses altogether, until them rubber tires come out, and boy when they come out, changed everything” (Harper, 16). At the time of his interview he was still farming and was still driving a 1949 tractor his brother “put in for” at the end of World War II.  [insert photo here]

With several of the centenarians interviewed, consequential strangers and a little luck positively altered their journeys. One centenarian shared that at the age of 20 his brother-in-law talked him into traveling to Oklahoma City to try to land a job with a meat-packing company. He recalled, “I just went up there and stood on the line. That was back kindly in the end of the Depression…. I went out there Monday morning, Tuesday morning. That Wednesday I told my brother-in-law, I said, ‘Well, if I don’t get to go to work out there today, I’m going to catch the watermelon truck back home. Forget this stuff.’

“Well, there wasn’t but about 75 or 80 of us sitting out there on the curb wanting a job. [The] boss had a man on vacation and he needed somebody just for a couple of weeks. He come out there and picked me out of the bunch. He told me, he said, ‘I can use you for a couple of weeks, but,’ he said, ‘that’s all I can promise.’ …. So I went in and started working, driving a horse to a two-wheeled cart, cleaning up on the yard there” (McMahan, 7). Sitting on the curb those three days was a turning point in his life and he went on to work for that company for more than 43 years.

According to the United Nation’s World Population Ageing 2013 report, “The older population is itself ageing. Globally, the share of older persons aged 80 years or over (the “oldest old”) within the older population was 14 per cent in 2013 and is projected to reach 19 per cent in 2050. If this projection is realized, there will be 392 million persons aged 80 years or over by 2050, more than three times the present.”

Living longer does not always mean living well. One hope of this project was to gather data that other researchers could use to examine various aspects of living a 100-year-life, not just the historical events they may have witnessed, but how living through them affected their philosophy or approach to life. Early analysis suggests that finding a way to be content, to grieve briefly and move on and to have faith in a positive tomorrow potentially improve one’s chance of having a long-lived and well-lived life.

When working with this population it is important to keep in mind not to assume just because they are the oldest old that they are all alike and all infirm. In this project more than one-fourth continued to live independently in their own homes, and more than one-fourth resided with a child and required minimum assistance. Most were ambulatory with some continuing to drive themselves to the grocery store and church.

When setting up recording equipment be sure to inquire if hearing in one ear is better than the other. When asking questions, give them time to ponder the question and their answer. While long-term memory is often easier to recall, at 100 they have a lot of data to sift through.

Also do not be surprised if you get caught off guard with a humorous response. A case in point, we once posed the question, “What gets you up in the morning?” The response, “The alarm clock.” Humor has been a common thread through this collection of interviews and suggests even a little laughter can positively affect the “history” to come.

As interviews move through the transcribing and reviewing process, they are being made available through the project’s website When the project was initially planned, the goal was meeting a dozen Oklahomans who were 100 years or older but the people and stories were such that we changed our goal to 100 100s and finally had to draw the line at 111…for now, perhaps.


OHMS: Enhancing Access to Oral History Online, Pre-conference Workshop

We’re just about a month out from OHA’s Annual Meeting and 50th Anniversary celebration! There’s a great lineup of Wednesday, pre-conference workshops, and the University of Georgia Special Collections Libraries and Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies are excited to sponsor and lead the workshop, “OHMS: Enhancing Access to Oral History Online.” Developed by the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky, OHMS (Oral History Metadata Synchronizer) is a free, open-source, online system designed to provide enhanced access to oral history. It works with content management systems and popular streaming services such as YouTube, SoundCloud, and Kaltura. OHMS is not just all about access! It is a system that captures critical descriptive and administrative metadata for digital preservation, and is versatile enough to be used with any digitized, time-based media.

In 2013, UGA Libraries became the first, non-UKY institution to implement the OHMS viewer fully, and for two years we’ve been integrating OHMS across all of our archives and the Digital Library of Georgia. From oral histories to field recordings, we’ve worked a lot with OHMS, and have helped many others to do so, too. Digital archivist and OHMS shepherd, Callie Holmes, and I will lead a snappy, hands-on-OHMS workshop for registrants. That’s right–bring your laptops! Really—bring or borrow a laptop, if you can. Oh, and earbuds or headphones, too. We’re setting up each participant with a dummy OHMS user account with media and metadata, so you’ll be ready to try the two-step with your new partners-in-access, and even give OHMS a spin after the workshop ends.

But, before we dance, we must first learn proper caring and feeding of OHMS. We will cover OHMS’ unique features, and some ways to work best with them in workflows and in your shop or archive: getting started, navigating the index module and indexing strategies, time management, and time-on-task estimates. We’ll also go over transcript preparation and syncing, and get deep into the craft and mashup of metadata and how to leverage the most out of it with OHMS. We’ll finish with a good chunk of time for hands-on work, cover newly-released updates, and maybe even show you some exciting, non-oral history uses, mods, and grant-funded projects OHMS has helped make happen for your fellow oral history practitioners.

Want to see OHMS in action at UGA? We like this one. “Level 2 index,” as Doug Boyd would say. Interview with Lemuel LaRoche aka Life the Griot

Submitted by Christian Lopez, Lead, Oral History and Media Archivist,
Presenter and Coiner of “Everybody Must Get OHMS-ed,” University of Georgia




OHA Comes to Montreal in 2018

For the second time in its history, the Oral History Association will be crossing an international border for its annual meeting. That’s right: the OHA is coming to Montreal, Québec, Canada, October 10-14, 2018! The conference will be hosted by Concordia University’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (COHDS) right on the downtown campus.

Located on unceeded Kanien’kehá:ka traditional territory, and founded by the French in 1642, Montreal is widely acclaimed as one of the most beautiful and historic cities in North America. Today, Montreal is a culturally and linguistically diverse global city with more than 20% of its residents born outside of the country. Many have fled war, genocide and political repression in their homelands. It is also the second largest French-speaking city in the world, just behind Paris. It is not unusual for urban households to speak three languages, mine certainly does.

Situated in the heart of the downtown core, Concordia University is a major English-language public post-secondary institution with its roots in the YMCA’s Adult Education Department. Concordia continues to have a strong commitment to community-engaged research as well as arts-based and digital “research-creation” (a term that we use in Quebec to acknowledge the variety of creative forms that research can take). Today, Concordia has one of the most diverse student-bodies of any university in Canada. Its perspective is global.

Montreal’s large and diverse oral history community is very much looking forward to hosting you in 2018. An interdisciplinary research unit of Concordia, COHDS is home to a vibrant community of faculty, students, artists, educators, filmmakers, heritage groups, and other community members. Among its past projects was Montreal Life Stories which recorded the life stories of 500 Montrealers displaced by large scale violence and then integrated these stories into online digital stories, live performances, art installations, audio walks, animated and documentary film, a museum exhibition, and other public outcomes. Current projects include Post-Industrial Montreal ( ), Lost Stories ( ), the Right to the City ( ), MapCollab ( ), and the Living Archives of the Rwandan Diaspora. For more on the work of COHDS, visit . The Concordia University Library is also heavily investing in oral history, as it is in the process of establishing itself as a national repository for “temporal media” (especially digital oral history, literary audio, and field recordings). One of the great challenges that we face as oral historians is how to ethically and creatively work with archived audio or video interviews and how to (re-)connect these stories with their source communities.

No discussion of oral history in Montreal would be complete without mention of community-based organizations. The Centre d’histoire de Montréal (CHM), the city museum, for example, has placed oral history at the heart of its interpretation for years. Its cutting-edge virtual and in-situ exhibitions have won a number of national and international prizes, including the OHA’s museum prize. Another leading oral history institution is the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre (MHMC), which works closely with survivor communities in the curation of their stories. Arts based groups such as Porte Parole, a prize winning documentary theatre company led by Annabel Soutar, and Rahul Varma’s Teesri Duniya Theatre, are at the forefront of oral history performance. In fact, Concordia just welcomed its new Canada Research Chair in Oral History Performance, Luis Sotelo-Castro, whose theatrical work engages with stories of mass violence in Columbia and elsewhere. Several survivor organizations in Montreal have also had a sustained engagement with oral history interviewing and curation, such as Page-Rwanda and the Centre Khemera, representing the survivors of the 1994 genocide and the Khmer Rouge respectively.

Given our expansive work at the intersections of oral history and performance, the visual arts, digital and place-based storytelling, and participatory media – we feel that the 2018 OHA Annual Meeting is a good opportunity to think outside the box in terms of how oral history research can be creatively shared and practiced. Concordia has therefore agreed to invest $25,000 in cash (plus free meeting rooms and wifi) to help place the OHA conference in Montreal with a rich program of oral history performance, audio walks, and other arts-based work.  We feel it is important that OHA members get the opportunity to engage with the living history of our city during your visit. Everyone here is also looking forward to being inspired by all of your great work in October 2018. These “mutual encounters” (to borrow a telling phrase from Alessandro Portelli) are what oral history is all about!

Finally, I should say that there are dozens of restaurants within a block or two of the conference site and a number of hotels and a youth hostel within a short 5-10 minute walk. Montreal is served by direct flights from across the United States and Canada and those coming from the US will have the advantage of a US dollar currently worth 1.29 CDN.

À bientôt.

Steven High
Professor of History and Co-Founder of the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling

For the past three years, students in oral history, theatre, art history, and art education have engaged with the neighbourhood of Point Saint-Charles and with each other. Photograph by David Ward.

“Make it Rain” Scholarships!

Donate to the 50th Anniversary Campaign today, and you’ll provide a scholarship tomorrow!

With excitement continuing to build for the upcoming OHA annual meeting in Long Beach, please take a moment to help make it possible for those students, professionals, and community practitioners facing financial limitations to attend. Each year the OHA scholarship program awards more than $10,000 in travel funding to attendees from the U.S. and abroad, expanding the diversity of the event and enriching oral history scholarship and practice by adding new voices to the conversation. One scholarship recipient explained to us how “it was truly inspiring to meet such a diverse group of dedicated individuals, sharing such important stories and bringing whole new worlds alive through my ears,” and that “the experience will enable me to improve my skills and better serve the communities I work with here in New York and around the world.”

Your generous contributions to the endowment fund have enabled the OHA to maintain a sustained effort to help individuals attend our meetings. This year, we are delighted to award twenty scholarships to recipients in the U.S. and as far as away as Portugal, India, and Australia. As the endowment grows, so too do the possibilities to enrich the larger world of oral history on local, national, and global levels.

#MakeItRainOHA is coming on September 13, 2016 — a one-day online fundraising event for OHA. Donate to the 50th Anniversary Campaign and help OHA build our scholarship and fellowship capacity, and please seek out our recipients at the annual meeting to introduce yourself – you will no doubt make new friends!

Mark your calendar for September 13 or DONATE NOW!


Thank you to our 2015 donors who got the campaign started…

2015 OHA Endowment Donors

Linda Arntzenius

Rina Benmayor

Teresa Bergen

Thomas Charlton

Missy Colee

Terry Easton

Jeff Friedman

Sherna Gluck

Jacquelyn Hall

Arthur Hansen

Charles Hardy III

Ruth Hill

Lu Ann Jones

Cliff Kuhn

Mary Larson

James McElhinney

Laurie Mercier

Todd Moye

Kristine Navarro-McElhaney

John Neuenschwander

Troy Reeves

Susan Resnick

Anne and Don Ritchie

Rebecca Sharpless

Linda Shopes

Amy Starecheski

Juan Vasquez

David Woodsfellow

Society of Biblical Literature


2015 Life Members

Doug Boyd

Mary Larson

David Morse

Paul Ortiz

Samuel Robson

Stephen Sloan

Jennifer Steinberg

Anne Valk

Regennia Williams

“The Walls Are Going to Come Tumbling Down” – Education Committee blog

“’The Walls Are Going to Come Tumbling Down:’ An Oral History/Digital Archive of an Unconventional Public College” by Carol Quirke, American Studies, SUNY Old Westbury

First Lady Michelle Obama recently rapped with Saturday Night Live star Jay Pharoah, “If you wanna fly jets you should go to college; Reach high and cash checks, fill you head with knowledge.” Americans are told college is a necessity for a stable lifestyle, and in a world with few union protections, stagnant wages, and corporate “disruption,” this advice seems on target. Yet college costs are ballooning and are mostly borne by students and their families, while the government cuts support for higher education. According to the American Council on Education’s report, “State Funding: A Race to the Bottom,” at the rate of current cuts the average state support for this engine of democracy and individual and societal mobility reach zero in less than fifty years.

How different it was half a century back, when the GI Bill and federally supported loans and grants democratized education, and the Cold War fueled financial support for publicinstitutions. How different when women, African-American, and Latino citizens clamored for access to college and for curricula that reflected their lived experience. Experiments: Old Westbury Oral History Project captures the College at Old Westbury’s origins. Founded by the State University of New York (SUNY) in 1965 and planned in an era of great optimism for higher education, Experiments explores how SUNY invested in a group of citizens—high school students, Long Island residents, national higher education leaders, Peace Corps administrators, conceptual artists, novelists, and political theorists—to get the experimental college off the ground. Small groups planned admissions criteria and curricula, even the college’s physical plant. Once the college opened its doors in 1968, many faculty and students believed they would continue to shape the college’s direction, as the 1966 Master Plan encouraged “admitting students in full partnership in the academic world and granting them the right to determine…their own areas of study and research.”

Full partnership” became the flashpoint for conflict between students, faculty and administrators. For some, the term included student involvement in every aspect of college governance and administration—developing courses and delineating the curricula, grading, and hiring faculty. Students also demanded that the college become an institution promoting equality, by attracting more Latinos and African-Americans. By contemporary standards the college was exceedingly diverse, nearly a quarter of the student body was comprised of students of color and many students were the first in their families to attend college. But for students active in Students for a Democratic Society, Black Power groups, and the Young Lords, the college could do better.

1968 was an inauspicious year to open a college. Conflict over the college’s mission ultimately led to student sit-ins, police response, and at one point, a fire in the college president’s home. The college president, Harris Wofford, who later became a U.S. Senator for Pennsylvania, left and the college shut its doors. When it re-opened, it seemed as if students had won, as non-traditional students, (housewives who had dropped out of college, and African-Americans and Latinos) became the college’s primary student body. And while the interdisciplinary program that Wofford had sought, grounded in the Great Books tradition was scrapped, new faculty were hired under John Maguire (president emeritus, Claremont College) committed to interdisciplinary scholarship in place of traditional disciplines. Many professors were radical or New Left or embraced critical pedagogies.

I began teaching at Old Westbury in 2004—and learned much about the college’s activist past and non-traditional traditions. But in 2004 this spirit felt diminished—particularly among the students. In an assignment where I ask students to respond to a 2008 New York Times op-ed piece by Charles Murray, too many of the students answered his plea, “Should the Obama Generation Drop Out?” in the affirmative. For these working students college was not a locus of activism or transformation. An instrumental view of college predominated—a college degree would confer economic success they believed.

Experiments: Old Westbury Oral History project explored the college’s unique roots and story in the hopes of rekindling its mission of social justice. Three faculty members from the American Studies department worked closely on the project’s design and implementation, two of whom are historians, one of whom is an experienced documentarian and new media practitioner. Additional faculty in American Studies and Sociology helped with interviewing. Our TV station manager supported equipment and studio needs. A former student filmed most of the interviews and did the labors of transcribing, editing clips, creating an introductory film, and setting up the website. Other alumnae helped by providing primary source material such as photographs and early documents related to the college. SUNY supported the project with an Explorations in Academic Excellence and Diversity award, and the college supported it with a Faculty Development Grant and in-kind resources.

We designed an interactive digital format that allowed many histories to surface; contentiousness surrounding the college’s early years had not abated more than forty years later. We interviewed three college presidents, three former faculty, and six students. We edited their stories into short clips focused on particular themes—for example, the paths that brought each interviewee to Old Westbury, the college’s roots, it’s curricula, and it’s relationship to its times. A primary focus was the college’s diversity—rooted in the first president’s desire that Old Westbury be a college of the world as well as student demands for educational equity and racial justice. Experiments made clear that the college’s diversity had been fought for initially, but that over time faculty, students and administrative commitment was required to maintain our inclusive student body. Also included in Experiments’ archive are transcripts of each interview, photographs and primary documents such as news clips, “lookbooks” of the entering class, early college catalogs, and reports to UNESCO on the college’s prospects. This digital archive allows viewers—students, educational analysts, historians—to make sense of Old Westbury’s story and to do history from multiple vantage points. The archive is far from complete, but the competing narratives and primary sources permit viewers to obtain a sense of the complex currents shaping public higher education from the late 1960s into the 1980s.

Most exciting is student response to the project. Faculty in our First Year program and in basic composition courses use the digital archive to help freshman imagine what their college education can mean by bringing them face to face with other students like themselves who were considering similar questions: “What does learning mean?” “What does teaching mean?” “What’s the purpose of a college education?” “Who decides who needs to know what?” I have used Experiments in an advanced history research course. Students read and abstracted multiple interviews which acquainted them with the oral history interview as a source, which like all sources must be examined as partial truths that provoke further questions and investigation. Abstracting interviews also forced advanced students to synthesize what they had read. Reading an early college catalog allowed students to understand a college’s structure, and how that structure might engage students in their education. Students were astonished by some of the primary sources—particularly the desire for experimentation expressed not just by students or activist faculty, but by the State of New York. Parsing participant transcripts and news clippings allowed students to identify key aspect of Old Westbury’s founding that were linked to the social ferment of the 1960s and 1970s, training students in contextualizing, a critical analytic tool for historians.

The history of colleges and universities is still being written, and this is especially true about institutions which serve non-traditional students. Debate about higher education’s meaning and effects has never been higher. Oral history projects like Experiments shed unique light on such debates, suggest a more expansive agenda for higher education than its instrumental value, and give students a catalyst to reflect on the individual and social meanings of higher education.

International Committee shares OHS Call for Papers


2017 Conference: Remembering Beliefs – The Shifting Worlds of Religion and Faith in Secular Society

The Annual Conference of the Oral History Society in conjunction with Newman University and Leeds Trinity University

Date: Friday, 14th and Saturday 15th July, 2017

Venue: Leeds Trinity University, Horsforth, Leeds, LS18 5HD

In recent years, belief and non-belief have developed new significance. What might once have been valued as something individual and private in many contexts only a generation ago can now be a matter of open identification and even confrontation and judgement. In seeking to understand what has changed, memory has an important part to play: identifying how belief and non-belief have played out at the level of family, community and society; recognizing how people engage in the practices of belief and experience the institutions of organized religion. For reasons perhaps of prejudice, perspective and communal difference oral historians have largely neglected the topic of belief and non-belief.

Going beyond studies which have focused on those with religious conviction, oral history offers the possibility to move debate outside the confines of institutionalized religion both conceptually and practically, pushing the boundaries of what is meant by belief. Indeed, it offers the ideal approach to understanding manifestations of belief and secularism at an individual level while tracking their relationship to shifting expressions of broader cultural norms and the conferment of identity. Tackling this exciting agenda, the remit of the Conference will be broad but contributions should focus on an oral history in relation to the following:

* methodological challenges in understanding belief, secularism and religion

* understanding the process of secularization through oral history testimonies

* inter-subjectivity in interviews on belief and non-belief

* the role belief plays in shaping memory

* exploring the interface of religion, belief and cultural/ national identities

* belief and education

* belief and non-belief in social, political and cultural transformations

* shifting the narratives of religion away from an institutional base

* gender and established religious institutions

* sects and movements

Keynote speakers: Professor Callum Brown, University of Glasgow; Dr. Abby Day, Goldsmiths, University of London; Dr. Tina Block, Thompson Rivers University, British Columbia. After-Dinner Speaker, Friday, 14 July, Bruce Kent.

All proposals for oral history-based contributions, including papers, panels, presentations, workshops, posters and displays should be submitted by 16th December 2016 to ku.gr1635442398o.sho1635442398@71021635442398fnoCS1635442398HO1635442398.

The conference will include strands dedicated to the OHS Higher Education and Special Interest Groups.

For more details go to: