Magazine Preview: The Oral History Research Office

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Hannah Lepow reports on the world’s oldest Oral History library.

Perched high up in the rafters of Butler Library, the Columbia Oral History Research Office is a resource known to few undergraduates but a Mecca for professional historians and writers. Along one wall runs a shelf of books by authors ranging from Robert Caro to Alan Brinkley, all works whose bibliographies include a reference to Columbia’s Oral History collection. According to Mary Marshall Clark, the program’s director, “everybody who’s writing on the 20th Century uses the collection.”

As well they should. The Columbia Oral History department, founded as the first of its kind in the world by Alan Nevins in 1948, houses over 7,000 transcribed interviews with notable figures, from Lauren Bacall to Malcolm X. That’s about 1.5 million pages of transcript, or 17,000 hours of tape.

Although oral history as a tradition has been around since Herodotus, the modern discipline is not interested in looking backward, like traditional history, but rather focusing on the present and informing future research. “We’re extremely aware of the present,” says Clark. “We want to find out how memories are formed.” In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Clark spearheaded an oral history project interviewing local New Yorkers, “people the newspapers would have missed.” She hopes that when historians turn their lenses back on the tragedy their work will be enhanced by these individuals’ voices.

At least one undergraduate is taking advantage of all the department has to offer. Mujib Mashal, CC ’11, was looking for a way to share the stories of his grade school teachers in his native Kabul, Afghanistan, when he stumbled upon oral history. His project, which he is currently in the process of getting online, comprises 12 hours of video footage of four educators sharing their stories. Mashal believes oral history has a greater role in Afghan culture. “In a country that’s been in a state of war for the past 30 years it’s hard to have a stable archive,” he explains. “A factual history cannot be written yet. So how do you preserve the stories for when the time is right for it to be written?” Through oral history, he believes, “The history that will be written when the time is right will be much richer.”

Illustrations by Mara Kravitz

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  1. hm

    <3 mara

    pdf version of B+W?

  2. Great article  

    Oral history is so important. I'm going to miss the unbelievably vast resource that is Columbia when I leave. *tear*

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