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Practices | The Interviewers | Finding Aids

Practices of the Oral History Research Office

In general, the Collection of the Columbia University Oral History Research Office, like most such collections, contains two types of interviews: shorter, focused interviews for particular projects that concentrate on a particular period, issue, institution, or personality, and longer biographical interviews that seek to document the life history of the individual being interviewed. These ten interviews are of the latter kind, chosen because they illuminate that process, and because we were able, in most cases, to complement the written transcripts with the original tape recordings. From its beginnings in 1948 under the aegis of Allan Nevins, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and author of numerous biographies and business histories, the Office has followed a standard practice developed by Nevins for collecting, processing, and making accessible its interviews. This practice has changed in significant ways over the years, but the basics have remained the same. To understand the interviews offered here it is necessary, we feel, to briefly describe that practice and how it has changed over the past half century.

In the early years of the Office, especially under the direction of Nevins, the thought was that the oral histories should mirror published memoirs. In fact, even though each interview was given the title "Reminiscences of," the literature published by the Office referred to them as memoirs. Interviews were tape-recorded, transcribed, indexed by proper name, edited by the Office staff, and presented as publications; the date that appeared in the record was the date the transcript was submitted to the public, as if a date of publication. While the Office is no longer in the thrall of the published book as a model of the interview, many of the procedures followed are those established so long ago.

Once someone has been selected for interviewing and has agreed to it, an interviewer is chosen to research the life of that individual and tape-record the interview. Thus interviews do not adhere to one standard template but diverge in the many ways that the personalities of the interviewers and those being interviewed do. Each interviewer is free to determine the particular path and style of the interview as long as constant evaluation of the interview sessions reveals that the important questions are being asked and that the quality of the interview is not being sacrificed. Thus one will find that a review of the interviews here will reveal as much about the interviewer as the interviewee. However, when Nevins and his initial staff devised the format for processing the interviews through transcription, it was at a time when it was thought that these individual differences were of little import so the names of the interviewers were not placed in the transcript; they were identified as an anonymous "Q." The names of interviewers now appear at the top of the transcript, but they are still subsequently referred to as "Q," despite our current view that the interview form is a dialectic and dialogic interactive process.

Transcription was, and remains, the hallmark of the Columbia Oral History Collection. Aside from Nevins's general belief that the oral history as a memoir was to replicate a publication, transcription was then, and in many cases is still, the easiest way to access the testimony gathered in the interview. Although recognizing, as we now do, that the tape recording is the primary source of the interchange taking place in the interview, most efforts to retrieve information from the tapes remain complicated, time consuming, and expensive. It is also, quite frankly, much easier for researchers to use the written transcript than the original recording. A scholar consulting a transcript can read an hour's worth of testimony in a few minutes whereas listening to the tape (and taking notes) would require a much larger investment of time. At this moment a number of efforts are underfoot to devise ways of indexing and accessing the recording and so bypassing transcription, but they remain processes for the future.

Complicating the relationship between the tape and the transcript—beyond the decisions of the transcriber about what to include and what to ignore in terms of linguistic asides (ers, ums, etc.) and the ways in which written syntax is imposed upon a spoken presentation—is the fact that once transcribed, the transcript is returned to the person interviewed for their correction, editing, and review. This process, it was argued, produced a much better historical document because it allowed for a second more distanced and contemplative review, which improved the reliability and validity of the testimony. An oral history was seen as the result of a lengthy process, only one part of which was the interview itself; the moment of presentation was not fetishized. Transcription and the requirement that all quotation and citation be made from the transcript also ensured a uniformity of presentation. Every scholar using the interview worked from the same syntax, sentence structure, pagination, etc., as every other researcher. This allowed for rapid peer review while eliminating possible disagreements over word placement, orthography, and inference that would follow from using the tape recording. And it also served to remove potential embarrassments, an important consideration when oral history was in its infancy and it was thought that it would be difficult to convince people to agree to be interviewed. In most cases, editing by the person interviewed is limited to style, but in some cases it is fairly substantial. In the early days of the Office, only a small portion of audio was saved to give some indication of the voice of the interviewee. Thus there is only a 120-minute segment of the hundreds of hours of tape of the Perkins interview that yielded a more than 5,000-page transcript. In one other case, tapes are missing. For the interview with Edward I. Koch, conducted in the 1970s, there are no tapes available. In this instance, after the interview and transcription were completed, Mayor Koch asked that the tapes be returned to him.

When the mayor graciously consented to our use of his interview for this Web site, the tapes could not be located among the papers and other records of his mayoral administration placed in the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives at LaGuardia Community College.

Starting in 1961 under the urging of Mrs. Elizabeth B. Mason, then the assistant director of the Office, all tapes have been kept. Thus we have been able to include several segments of the audio tapes as a complement to the transcripts presented here. The complete audio for most of the ten interviews featured on this site is available on the Audio and Transcripts page for each interview. There is also a short audio interview excerpt on the Introduction page for each interview.

After the tapes are transcribed and sent for review, each person interviewed is asked to sign a legal release governing access to the interview. Usually people are offered three choices: opening the interview immediately, closing all or portions of the interview for a stated period of time, or requiring anyone seeking to use the interview to obtain their permission or the permission of heirs or executors to read the transcript. This release also vests copyright, usually with the Office but sometimes with the interviewee or his or her assigns or the institution sponsoring the project. In the case of the ten interviews presented here, copyright is either held by the trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York or we have obtained the permission of those interviewed to allow us to post the transcripts and tapes. This is a major exception to the usual practice of the Office, which would require anyone seeking to listen to tapes to secure permission from the person interviewed and require all quotation from the transcript.

Before the age of computers and word processing, interviews were typed with carbon copies. Interviewee corrections were entered onto the ribbon copy by hand. If they were extensive, or difficult to read, the transcript was retyped. But in some of the original pages of the Lasker transcripts, presented here in PDF documents, the reader will see those corrections. With word processing, editing and entering corrections of those interviewed became much simpler, and hand-correcting on a reader copy of the transcript by our staff was no longer necessary. This makes for a much more readable copy, but many of our patrons have told us they much prefer the earlier practice because it shows them where the interviewee had had a change of mind or thought a correction was necessary. Each visitor to this site will have to make his or her own determination.

The Columbia Oral History Research Office has never devoted its limited funds to beautifully edit transcripts as other programs have. Thus in the transcripts offered here the reader will find lacunae where the person interviewed failed to fill in names or dates, or couldn't remember them, where our editors could not devote the necessary time or funds to complete a search or to correct some spellings, etc. This is the case in many of the older interviews, but such lacunae do occur in some of those done more recently.

We encourage any comments or evaluations of the interviews. They are here offered not only as examples of our work but also as contributions to our understanding of the oral-history process, both of which are constantly changing.

Nowhere is this change more noticeable in these ten interviews than in the heart of the genre: the biographical impulse. As noted earlier, all of these interviews are biographical interviews, yet the differences over time are substantial. The earlier interviews, with Frances Perkins, Mary Lasker, and the first John Oakes section have as their focus the public lives of those interviewed. Later interviews incorporate a more personal tone, as evinced in the Kenneth and Mamie Clark, Moe Foner, and second Ed Koch interviews. In the Heiskell and Stanton interviews, it is clear that the interviewers are seeking testimony on the subjective and personal aspect of the self-created biographies. In the earlier interviews, personal testimony was not discouraged, but it was obviously considered of secondary interest, useful if it illuminated the subject's public life; in the later interviews the boundaries between the personal and public spheres seem to be blurred. Such a change in emphasis reflects the historical profession's move away from institutional history towards an interest in the study of experience and memory; but it also reflects contemporary observations about the inseparability of the personal and the political, and the idea of history as a construct that can be used to mobilize both experience and memory for a new reading of the traditional archive.

A second shift, following from the first, is the sense of the relationship between the interviewer and the interviewee in constructing the historical narrative of the interview. In the earlier interviews, that relationship seems obviously to be distanced, contemplative; the small indications of intersubjectivity are submerged. The rather limited goal was the production of "objectively" verifiable data. The interview is to be read as a document of the past in as straight and as linear a manner as possible, presenting present historians with what were believed to be empirically valid testimonies. Later interviews openly seek to merge the perspectives of interviewer and interviewee. Both parties make no pretense that the present is not a factor in the evaluation of the past. While there is still concern with what happened in the past, there is equal concern with how that past lives on in experience and informs the present, and in turn how that present informs the view of the past. A close look at the four segments of the Oakes interview portrays the relationship between the past and present dramatically.

The Interviewers

Each oral-history interview, and probably each session, is unique in the sense of the ever-shifting relationship between interviewer and interviewee and the relationship of both to the past and present. Yet there are some general patterns. Here I want to draw attention to some of the characteristics of the changing nature of the interviewers over the history of the Office.

When Nevins first established the Office, he selected trained historians as his staff and interviewers, all of them at that time at Columbia. When Nevins retired, Louis Starr became director. Starr had a degree in history and was a faculty member at Columbia's School of Journalism. He relied on his wide contacts among fellow journalists for his Office interviewers. Thus, during the years of the rapid expansion of the program, most of the interviews were conducted by people who had honed their skills in various journalistic enterprises. Especially after 1978, when the Office received a very large grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to collect biographical interviews, many journalists were recruited to build the Collection. After Starr's tenure, rather than relying on traditional academic historians or journalists, the Office selected interviewers from a variety of backgrounds who had an interest and training in historical methods. Many of the interviewers completed the graduate course in oral history offered by the Office in the School of Library Service and then the Department of History. After 1982 that training focused on oral history as a historiographical act and stressed the particular nature of the practice in combination with traditional historical training. Thus it is no surprise that the most recent interviewers have defined themselves as oral historians, not as journalists or historians who do interviews, but as practitioners of the art of oral history. We leave it to the reader to determine if these distinctions have any meaning for the interviews offered here.

Finding Aids

There are two finding aids to assist patrons when they consult oral histories at Columbia: the catalog and the Master Biographical Index. The catalog is constructed through interview summaries, which are composed as part of the final step in the processing of interviews. Summaries for about half of the interviews in the Collection are available through the Research Libraries Information Network (RLIN). The full listing is available at the Oral History Research Office. The only index available is a proper-name index, where all names mentioned in any of the over 8,000 interviews in the Collection are listed alphabetically. There is no subject index. At one time the Office did embark upon a project to construct a subject index, but because of the wide range of the interviews and the incredible variety of topics discussed, it proved to be an impossible task. The full Master Biographical Index is maintained in the Office, but every interview has its own index. Those interview indexes are reproduced here at the end of each interview. To assist the user we have built a rudimentary table of contents for nine of these ten interviews (a brief table of contents for the Perkins interview was designed at the time of the interview). These tables fall somewhere between a real table of contents and a subject index. It is our hope that they will prove useful to readers.

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