Oral History Projects


“History Saving Lives”

The Historical Institute of the City of Buenos Aires, under the city’s Ministry of Culture, has been developing an oral history program since 1985. This program includes research, courses, training sessions, school outreach and the publication of a journal, Voces Recobradas. With the general goal of exchanging oral history knowledge and experience, biennial national and international conferences have been organized by the faculty of the University of Buenos Aires.

We would like to take this opportunity to share one of the oral history projects that the Historical Institute has organized. Formally entitled “Reconstructing the Common Memory for Reinclusion,” it was baptized by Italian colleagues as “History saving lives.”

The project is directed towards youths from marginal neighborhoods on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, especially those in their last years of secondary school. These adolescents, often supported through government services, have such additional responsibilities as parenting children or supporting unemployed parents. We consider that this is a high risk group because of poverty, lack of adequate access to youth centers, and basically because they are young people with uncertain futures. In these locations the uncertainty is often amplified; in extreme situations some cannot even think of a possible future.

The oral history research is designed to link education with the community. As an extracurricular project, students will receive a monthly stipend for their efforts. The guidelines create a symbolic value representing completed work, where money is received as payment for services given. Also, guidelines establishing the relationship between students and the Historical Institute are governed though a contract. This incorporates into the working relationship concepts such as “the rule” (which normalizes ties), the idea of production, and the achievement of incorporating knowledge or reinforcing those already acquired through the development of specific tasks.

The project offers training in basic oral history techniques, for obtaining testimonies from people within the neighborhood, and for creating an oral archive based on the idea that these youths might explore their own history while at the same time processing, analyzing, and reconstructing the information they collect. This way, youths will create their own space that will eventually become recognized by the entire community. To begin this endeavor, we have counted upon the support of L´Associazzione Teatro Zelig di Torino, “Two Worlds and a Rose” Project [Proyecto “Dos mundos y una rosa”] and the Friends of the Historical Institute Association [Asociación Amigos del Instituto Histórico]. Before initiating fieldwork, several tutorials were held where students came prepared to discuss reading assignments about the times in which they are living. The level of complexity of the assignments has depended on the experience that participants acquire during group work, and of the specific realities of their everyday lives and their particular interests and goals.

The first of the partial results of this initial stage was a short text prepared by participants and read during the end-of-year school party. Another, longer text was published in the COPA’s annual review and in Voces Recobradas (number 21). Participants also painted a mural with a theme of their choice, under the guidance of a wall painter. The second result was the cultural newsletter, Hablando bajo, Sobre la diversidad [Speaking Softly: About Diversity], which printed interview transcriptions of community members. Participants carried out recorded interviews and transcribed them on the computer. They chose topics to focus on, selected transcripts and photographs for publication, participated in the layout, and debating the personal observations that would be included in the publication. All activities were undertaken at the Historical Institute under the supervision and guidance of its professional staff. The youths presented their newspaper, along with a video explaining the work that they were undertaking, at the Workshop of Cultural Diversity [Jornadas de Diversidad Cultural] organized by the Commission for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage [Comisión de Preservación del Patrimonio Cultural].

Currently, participants are undertaking an ambitious project of interviewing members of the distinct ethnic communities that coexist in the neighborhood. Through preparation of a traditional meal from their places of origin, subjects begin sharing their history and its cultural wealth. Through these meals they also exhibit the differences caused by their “uprootedness,” which are tied to their identities. These interviews have been filmed. Next, participants will start depositing digitalized recordings for cataloguing in the Historical Institute’s Oral History Archive. A planned objective is the filming a documentary to show the neighborhood from the perspectives of community members rather than the stigmatized stereotypes generated by mass media, such as drug addiction or delinquency. To carry this out, we are developing a course on technical editing of documentary video. The course was developed with the idea that learning this skill could enable the young people to use it as a tool for others assignments.

Debates have emerged regarding topics relevant to everyday issues common to youths, such as insecurity and falling through the social welfare net, personal efforts made to gain access to various services, and means of subsistence (formal work, university education), among others. Debates have arisen around different understandings of proposed theories with the goal of deepening our understanding of the issues at hand. The project seeks to use oral history not just as a record but as an instrument for the social transformation among youth groups facing difficult situations, to give greater meaning to learning.

Liliana Barela [email protected]
Historical Institute of the City of Buenos Aires, Argentina


Musical Past Project

The Brazilian National Library has completed the second stage of the “Musical Past Project.” This project was developed by PUC-Rio and sponsored by Petrobrás. All of its content is available online and can be accessed through the National Library’s homepage (www.bn.br/site/default) or directly atwww.bn.br/bnPortal/site/pages/bibliotecaDigital/passadomusical/script/index.asp


Czech Oral History Association (COHA) Founded

The Czech Oral History Association (COHA) is a non-profit organization established to support and present oral history research and projects. The impulse for its founding originated at the 14th International Oral History Conference in Sydney in 2006. While discussing the national associations in the world and the development of the interdisciplinary oral history research in the countries of the ex-Eastern bloc, a question arose about the possibility of establishing a Czech association. Miroslav Vanek, one of the pioneers of the oral history method after the so-called “Velvet Revolution,” and a long time director of the Oral History Center at the ICH of the Academy of Sciences in Prague, addressed a number of historians, anthropologists, ethnologists, linguists, archivists, and museums employees after his return from Sydney. Only half a year later, due to the considerable interest from the public, we are proud to present the Czech Oral History Association.

COHA was established at a constitutive meeting on January 8, 2007. The statutory body of the Association is the Council–nine executive board members and three audit board members. Miroslav Vanek has been elected president of the Association, M.A. Pavla Frýdlová, one the founders of the Genders Studies Prague, its vice-president. 15 institutions and 30 individuals have joined COHA so far.


COHA constitutive meeting January 8, 2007 (COHA President Miroslav Vanek is the second from the left)

The Sydney conference dealt significantly with the role of oral history method in the research of the contemporary history. Many researchers pointed to certain dangers of such research, e.g. approaches favoring the “visible” or “winning political elites” and unethical treatment of narrators. More than once, media were mentioned in this context. Superficial approaches, sensation-seeking or the non-acquaintance with the research subject can threaten the research itself and the method in general. Paradoxically, huge amount of collected material (due to digital technology) will impede interpretation. Such material could become easily manipulated if it varies in quality, doesn’t follow the principles of oral history research, or doesn’t take the context of history into account, etc. Therefore, national associations can help raise interest about oral history method and its usage in researches in the humanities not only in the Czech Republic, but throughout the ex-Eastern Bloc.

COHA’s main goals are:

a) to build and consolidate methodological instructions and rules of the oral history research in order to prevent the non-scientific usage;
b) to thoroughly apply ethical principles of the oral history to research;
c) to provide assistance to newly established institutions and inform the public about current projects, books, conferences and happenings;
d) to maintain web pages with a bulletin;
e) to link particular archives of existing Czech oral history testimonies with respect to each institution’s and organization’s rules of providing access to them (i.e. not building one “mega” archive); and, hopefully,
f) to host the 16th International Oral History Conference in Prague.

This is one of the most important medium-term plans of the Association, which would serve as a challenge for all the interested (organizers, researchers, sponsors etc.) and possibly as an inspiration for many other similar institutions in Middle and East Europe. Membership is open to any individual or institution supporting the goals and objectives of the association.

For more information visit www.oralhistory.cz


Clandestine Voices: Oral History and the Anti-Francoist Armed Resistance

Our research has focused on the armed anti-Francoist resistance that developed in eastern Andalusia between 1939 and 1952. For this work we have relied on an important volume of written documentation, but also from beginning we have been conscious of the need to document rich and complex oral history sources. What has drawn us to explore these often controversial sources of historical insight?

First, the majority of the written sources (with the exception of the clandestine press or the scarce memoirs of guerrilla fighters and their neighbors) belong to the repressive forces, institutions of the pro-Franco dictatorship or the official press. These provided partial and strictly operational or military versions of the story and which marginalized or quashed other perspectives. The historical record derived from them remains fragmented. Obscured from the historical record are perspectives that highlight the domains of daily life, individual and collective experiences or personal motivations, including key features like the nature of interpersonal relations, individual biographies of protagonists or their neighbours who suffered the consequences of the armed conflict. These other stories can be brought out by an appreciation of oral sources. An appreciation of oral sources can broaden our understanding of the relative aspects of memory and the effect of phenomena, such as repression and other post-conflict influences on altering memories of the resistance experience. This will allow us to analyze perspectives as diverse as the most extreme cases of family forgetting/silence or the impact of processes such as the “saturation of memory” through historical myths.

Methodologically, it is important to point out two key considerations in compiling information from oral interviews. The anti-Francoist resistance occurred over sixty years ago and the phenomenon suffered broad-ranging repression, resulting in two significant problems for the researcher: the scarcity of direct firsthand accounts and, to a lesser degree, a certain fear of speaking about the phenomena in a rural ambience, which was a natural habitat of the armed resistance to the Franco regime. This area is also importance since phenomena such as migrations or societal transformations in recent decades have not undone networks and loyalties within the community. These aspects have determined both the selection of sources and the approach to the development, planning and method of conducting the interviews, changing in accordance with the context and proper needs of each interviewee.

To date we have carried out eleven interviews that we can differentiate according to typology and according to the subject’s position in the conflict: four village community members close to actual combatants, three family members of guerrilla fighters, three actual guerrilla fighters, and one civil guard member. Of the eleven, five have permitted us to conduct recorded audio interviews (the three guerrillas, the civil guard and one family member). One villager explained that he/she desired to remain anonymous. The interviews were conducted in the interviewees’ homes, with a few exceptions. One villager was interviewed on the street, one family member in a café, and another family member over the telephone. The interviews lasted about three hours, although one with a villager lasted half an hour, and two others with family members lasted over several days. Our intention is to include approximately fifty oral interviews over four years. While the study period may seem excessive, it must be taken into consideration that an oral interview obtains better results when it is based on documentary preparation by the interviewers, along with prior contact with the interviewee to dispel any mistrust about our intentions.

The results have been positive, bringing out not only information about aspects missing in the written documentary sources but also providing insights into the process of memory construction. Memory provides us with a window into the individual, family or collective experience of the interviewee but in a particular chronological fashion. The experience unravels in real-time, in the nucleus of the action, with its representations and experiences of the past, in addition to some expectations projected on the future. On the other hand, memory is located in a present that was once the unknown future. Memory is an exercise of reliving the past from the new coordinates of its future; that is to say, with an aggregate of accumulated experiences and different expectations. In clearer terms, we are unable to confound memory with experience, and even less, memory with history. Memory can sometimes speak to us more about the present than the actual past, which is one of the major challenges facing the historian.

In conclusion, we encounter clandestine voices that help us to understand not only history, but also its myths, memories, representations and images. This is a field of enormous potential.

Jorge Marco [email protected]
Universidad Complutense de Madrid

Canary Emigration to the Spanish Sahara: Memory and History through Oral Sources

After the 1885 Berlin Congress, the Sahara remained under the Spanish flag as a protectorate, as were Ifni and Equatorial Guinea. It was not until Franco took power that much attention was given to the region, resulting in numerous studies and analysis. Also as a result of the discovery of rich deposits of phosphate and petroleum, added to the fertile fishing banks of the Canary-Sahara region, the Sahara became a key feature of the Spanish economic and political scheme. Starting in the 1940s, a flow of Spanish migrants began to arrive in the colony, a development that became more pronounced in the 1960s and 1970s, when the phosphate company, Fos-Bucráa began business there. In 1975, the Spanish government abandoned the territory, leaving its administration to Morocco. On the same day the Spanish flag was lowered in the Sahara, on 28 February 1976, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) emerged.

The objective of this study is the examination and reconstruction of the causes that led thousands of Canary Islanders to establish a new life in the Spanish Sahara. In addition, this study aims to understand aspects of work and labor undertaken in the colony. This will be achieved through the use of oral sources. Many Spaniards from the peninsula migrated to the area to work most commonly in the administrative services. Canary Islanders, more numerous than other Spanish migrant groups, worked in a wide variety of positions. Thus, the prospect of interviewing the first generation of Canary Islanders that emigrated to neighbouring shores, provides an opportunity to understand the causes of this migratory movement in addition to exposing types of labour activities.

This investigation is divided into five phases. The first consisted of developing an interview questionnaire that draws attention to objectives framed by an economic perspective. This document is structured in six parts. First, this study establishes a life-history of the migrant before they took the decision to depart the island of Grand Canaria for the Spanish Sahara, including family origins, education and working conditions. Also of interest is information that migrant possessed regarding the destination as well as, more importantly, factors that motivated them to migrate. Second, this study examined the emigrant’s city of choice in Spanish Sahara. It also considered differences in occupation and working condition, making it possible to compare these with standards in the Canary Islands. The third section collected personal experiences of everyday life and relations with the Saharauis. This section also reflected on the level of information provided to the subject concerning the political and social climate in the Spanish colony. The fourth section examined the moment of return. Here, the study examined the driving force that motivated the subject (and his or her family, if they had one) to decide to leave the Spanish Sahara, particularly if leaving was due to a personal decision or, in contrast, was a result of the mandatory evacuation in November 1975. At the end of the interview, the subject was asked to give a general and personal overview of their experiences in the Spanish Sahara, as well as the consequences from the change that arose in their lives when they returned to the islands.

The second stage consisted of selecting and making initial contact with the subject to be interviewed. This step is initially carried out over the telephone. Those whose name had been suggested by someone previously interviewed often responded more frequently. In regards to their personal profile, subjects were required to be a woman or man who was a first generation migrant and who had lived at five years in the former Spanish colony. This last requirement was omitted if the person was present during the 1975 evacuation or if he or she worked in Fos-Bucráa (Bucráa Phosphates), the most important company in the Spanish Sahara (both are important chapters within the project). This company belonged to the INI (National Institute of Industry) and currently, under Moroccan control, is a key economic component of the Sahara. The professional makeup of those interviewed is quite varied. Of particular interest are the testimonies of those who were school teachers, employees of large companies, entrepreneurs, electricians, laborers, or housewives. Those in the military sector were excluded as their stay in the Sahara was due to other factors.

The third stage corresponded to conducting the interview. This took place, whenever possible, in the home of the subject being interviewed. Indeed, an important aspect of the interview process is the silence of the room and the sole presence of the interviewer. Also, conducting the interview in the subject’s home not only allows for the subject to be more relaxed, but also able to show his or her photographs or documents during an appropriate moment.

The next stage began when a transcription of the interview was made. Finally, the completed transcription is then compared and contrasted with other sources extracted from archives and newspaper deposits.

The testimonies collected for this project will help ensure that the recent past is not forgotten. This entails the recovery of memory and the opportunity to return History to the hands of its protagonists.

Beatriz Andreu Mediero [email protected]
University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria


Frontline Diplomacy: The Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection

Frontline Diplomacy: The Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection A new online collection of interviews with some of the most prominent diplomats of the 20th century is now available from the Library of Congress’s American Memory Web site: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html. “Frontline Diplomacy: The Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training” http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/diplomacy/ presents a window into the lives of American diplomats. Transcripts of interviews with U.S. diplomatic personnel capture their experiences, motivations, critiques, personal analyses and private thoughts. These elements are crucial to understanding the full story of the creation of a structure of stable relationships that maintained world peace and protected U.S. interests and values.

Most of the interviews in the collection come from foreign service officers, but there also are some with political appointees and other officials. This collection captures the post-World War II period in vivid terms and intimate detail, documenting the way U.S. diplomacy defended the United States and its interests in a challenging world. The narratives span the major diplomatic crises and issues that faced the United States during the second half of the 20th century and, as new interviews are added will include developments in the 21st century. The 1,301 transcripts of oral history interviews were donated by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, a private, nonprofit organization.

The collection includes extensive personal recollections from luminaries of American 20th century diplomatic history, including Alfred “Roy” Atherton (ambassador to Egypt), Zbigniew Brzezinski (national security adviser under President Carter), Frank Carlucci (ambassador to Portugal under Presidents Nixon and Ford; also served as secretary of defense under President Reagan), Julia Child (spouse of foreign service officer Paul Cushing Child), Lawrence Eagleburger (secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush), Averell Harriman (ambassador to the Soviet Union and England under President Franklin Roosevelt), Jeane Kirkpatrick (ambassador to the United Nations), Winston Lord (played a critical role in opening relations with China under President Nixon), Clare Boothe Luce (ambassador to Italy under President Eisenhower), Douglas MacArthur II (nephew of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and ambassador to Japan, Belgium, Austria and Iran), Charles H. Percy (senator from Illinois), Rozanne Ridgway (ambassador to Finland and East Germany), Dean Rusk (secretary of state under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson), John S. Service (foreign service officer specializing in China before World War II), Cyrus Vance (secretary of state under President Carter) and Marion Post Wolcott (photographer, married to USAID official Lee Wolcott).

The full text of the official press release is available at: http://www.loc.gov/today/pr/2007/07-029.html. For further information please contact the Library’s Manuscript Division:http://www.loc.gov/rr/askalib/ask-mss2.html.

Laura Gottesman http://www.loc.gov/rr/askalib/

Doing Unheard of Things: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Student Politics

Lawsuits for campus recognition. Marching through campus in the first ever gay freedom day celebration. Organizing meetings in a local diner, since campus was not a very “gay place to be.” Organizing “confabs” of student leaders from across the state of California. These are just some of the stories I am uncovering in my on-going research examining the history of the early days of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) student organizing on college and university campuses in California. Focusing primarily on the period between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s, the project traces the political awakening of a new generation of GLBT students on campus. Inspired primarily by other contemporaneous liberation movements as well as the broader student movement happening around them, GLBT students began to come out claim space, confront homophobia, and offer a sort of “queer counterculture” to correct what was typically a heterosexual campus culture. Yet, those early efforts were not easy. Students faced administration and alumni opposition. They also discovered the challenges of organizing across race, ethnicity, class and gender. What emerged, however, was the creation of a new public presence for GLBT students on campus that led to community building, new curriculum, and a more inclusive campus culture for all sexual minorities.

Research for the project has proceeded in two main ways. In archives across the state, I have mined campus specific special collections, examined student newspapers, and culled the rich holdings of GLBT archives and libraries, especially the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco (http://glbthistory.org), which include collections of personal papers, flyers from campus events, oral histories, and a vast collection of gay and lesbian newspapers and periodicals. Because official records often ignore or misrepresent the GLBT experience, the project is also relying on the collection of an anticipated 40 oral histories from former students, faculty, gay liberation and women’s liberation activists, as well as local community members. I am currently completing this phase of the project. Original tapes and transcriptions will be donated to the GLBT Historical Society for the use by future generations of researchers and community members. The final product will be an anticipated book length study and a possible public exhibition which I hope will travel to some of the campuses I am examining in the research.

David A. Reichard [email protected]
California State University Monterey Bay

Smells Like Money: A Documentary Film

Directing and editing Smells Like Money: The Story of Bellingham’s Georgia Pacific Plant was an incredible learning experience. I had no idea what to expect when I started work on the film as part of an oral history course. I couldn’t have imagined the laborious but rewarding process of piecing together 70 years of history, and I certainly didn’t expect the final product to be of such historical value to the city of Bellingham, Washington.


The documentary is based on oral history interviews I conducted with six former employees of the GP Pulp Mill in Bellingham. Although I knew very little about the history of the mill, I knew that there had been some controversy a few years back about environmental concerns, and that the mill had closed shortly afterwards, so I expected environmental issues to be the main focus of the film.

Initially, I toyed with the idea of interviewing some of the community members who protested the plant’s environmental impact. I was doing exactly what I’d been taught numerous times in journalism and other writing courses, looking for the conflict. I envisioned the GP employees talking about “those hippy environmentalists,” juxtaposed with clips of the community members accusing the plant of not caring about the environment.

I did get some sound bites that I could have used to make the film a mudslinging contest between GP employees and environmentalists, but when I looked at the interviews as a whole, I realized that these men were offering up completely rational justifications for beliefs that were, at least on the surface, different from my own. Presenting the story as a conflict between the workers and environmentalists, would not only be a misrepresentation of what the interviewees were saying, it would be doing a disservice to the preservation of this important part of Bellingham’s history.

It is difficult for many people to understand how anyone could look so favorably on the plant when, from their perspective, it was so harmful to the community. To the majority of Bellingham, the plant was nothing but an eyesore and a polluter, destroying Bellingham’s waterfront for corporate profits. Although there is some truth to this statement, it is not a view that is shared by everyone. To the men I interviewed the mill was not just a source of income, but also a source of stability, friendships, and moral support. They saw the plant as a place that provided a valuable service to the community that honestly tried to have as little impact on the environment as it could while still maintaining its economy viability. Knowing that the plant represented all those things to these men, I can understand why they feel the way they do about it, and their ability to look past some of its flaws. To them, the good the plant did for them, for the community and for their co-workers, far outweighed any negative impact that it had on the environment or the visual aesthetics of the city. This is not a perspective that is heard very often in the public discourse in Bellingham, because from what I’ve seen, few people understand fully it. For me, it took the process of interviewing these 6 men for this film to truly understand it.

Because hearing the perspective of the GP employees was so insightful for me, I wanted to make sure that the film was an accurate representation of what the men said, so that others could learn from them as well. I made sure to include any recurring themes that came up in the interviews. The most prevalent themes were the phrase “like a family” used to describe the atmosphere of the mill, and the pride they felt in their work. It was attitudes such as those that helped me to understand their perspective more than any environmental impact studies they cited in the interviews, so I really wanted to make sure that I represented their attitudes as accurately as I represented the facts.

Although I felt like I was asking a favor for them to sit down and talk with me, all the men I interviewed were more than willing to share their experiences, and many thanked me afterwards for giving them the opportunity to do so. It was this eagerness to share their perspective that made me committed to accurately representing their ideas as best I could. If I didn’t show their side of the story, who would?

For more information, or to order Smells Like Money, visit www.NWFilmSchool.com/Money

David Albright [email protected]

Veterans History Project and Filmmaker Ken Burns Launch Oral History Educational Outreach Program

The Library of Congress and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) announced a joint community engagement initiative designed to gather the first-hand recollections of the diverse men and women who served in the military during wartime. The public outreach campaign corresponds to the broadcast of Ken Burns’ new film, The War, beginning on September 23, 2007.

The Veterans History Project (VHP), a major program of the Library of Congress American Folklife Center, is an oral history program created by Congress in 2000. VHP depends on volunteer interviewers—family and friends of veterans, communities, and a wide variety of organizations and institutes—to record the one-of-a-kind interviews of wartime veterans and send them to VHP where they are housed in the permanent collections of the Library of Congress. To date, VHP has collected over 45,000 individual stories.

The War is a seven-part series, directed and produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, which provides a partial snapshot of the World War II experience through the personal accounts of a handful of men and women from four geographically distributed American towns: Waterbury, Connecticut; Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California; and the tiny farming town of Luverne, Minnesota. The series explores the most intimate human dimensions of one of the greatest cataclysms in history—a worldwide catastrophe that touched the lives of people throughout the country—and demonstrates that in extraordinary times, there are no ordinary lives.

PBS hopes that the personal stories portrayed in its broadcast of The War will inspire others to share their memories with their friends, families, communities and, ultimately, the Library of Congress, as part a national discussion about this pivotal period in American history.

The Veterans History Project has developed a field guide on how to conduct an oral history interview, which includes pointers from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick on lighting and shooting the video. Additional information provides tips on how to send recorded interviews to the Veterans History Project. The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to preserve and present American folklife through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Web site for the American Folklife Center is www.loc.gov/folklife/