|Vol.24, No. 04||Sept. 25, 1998|
By Aimery Dunlap-Smith
With so many jewels in Columbia's crown, it's no surprise that some get overlooked. The Oral History Research Office (OHRO) is one such jewel.
Soon to celebrate its 50th birthday, the oral history office is the first and foremost archive of its kind in the nation, if not the world. The office has for decades drawn writers, historians, journalists, filmmakers and researchers of every kind from every point on the globe to its singular and invaluable collection of audio and video tapes, transcripts and books. Yet to the world inside the Delacorte Gates that open on to College Walk, it remains largely unknown.
Its obscurity is perhaps the result of oral history's unfixed place in academia or perhaps the Office's tiny place within the University (just two full-time and one part-time employees) or, perhaps, just the place itself: if you don't have directions to find it, you won't. Regardless of the reasons, this secret despite itself wants now to be told.
"The office has a precious heritage," Ron Grele, OHRO's director, says; "we are probably as close as this nation comes to a voice library." Its status as such is evidenced by the 1,200 scholars who consult the archive annually. "Still," Grele says, "we'd like to have more Columbia students come through our door."
Those who do would find in the northeast corner of Butler's attic-two flights above the elevator's last stop-a large room that without computers would resemble a private library from the '40s. Besides the books, its salient feature are several large catalog cases. These are the keys that unlock the eclectic information contained in the collection's 7,500 taped interviews and 750,000 pages of transcripts - that comes to nearly 20,000 hours of taped reminiscences, to which the collection adds as many as 400 hours of interviews yearly.
The earliest of its taped memories go back to the draft riots of 1863. These were obtained by OHRO founder Allan Nevins, a Columbia history professor, from Charles C. Burlingham, who in the late 1940s was 91.
There are also interviews of the anarchist Aldino Felicani, describing the last time he saw Sacco and Vanzetti in prison, shortly before they were executed; of Dorothy Parker, discussing Hollywood and her work as a writer there in the '30s; of Muriel Gardiner, who, while in Austria studying to become a psychoanalyst, recalls witnessing the start of Anschluss, the day in the early spring of 1938 that the Germans marched into Vienna; of Orval Faubus, Arkansas governor during the 1957 Little Rock school desegregation standoff, on his conversations with President Eisenhower at the height of the crisis; of Helen Suzman, liberal parliamentarian in South Africa, on her first meeting with Nelson Mandela in his Robben Island jail cell; and on, and on-thousands of voices remembering events great and small of the past century and a half.
"We have no competition," Grele says. "Other collections cover regions or specific events; we cover the world.
"And because ours is vast and such a hodgepodge of events and people, the collection has interconnections-for example, movie people talking not just about Hollywood and film making in the '50s but about politics and meeting politicians such as Adlai Stevenson-no other collection can offer that to the extent we can."
To some, such as Roger Angell, writer and editor at The New Yorker, it is both the richness of the archive and its forgotten, undiscovered quality that makes the Office a marvelous find-the intellectual mountaineer's Shangri-La. Intrigued by the report of it from a friend who was taped for an Oral History Research Office project, Angell trekked up to the eighth floor of Butler. "I got a call from him a few hours after he left," Associate Director Mary Marshall Clark says; "he told me: 'I love that you have old furniture, I love that you're in the attic, I love that no one there knows you're there, I love everything about you.' "
Such effusions are common from those who discover the office. Grele sighs: "Love is the one thing we get a lot of."